Born in 1901 in the rolling grassland of West Texas, at the age of 15, with very little formal education, Lily Casey Smith left home to begin teaching in a frontier town, riding 500 miles on her beloved pony, Patch, all alone, to get to her job. She went on, with her husband, to run an 180,000 acre ranch in Arizona and to raise two children, one of whom is Jeannette’s memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls. Readers will love and marvel at this intrepid woman, for her fearlessness, her courage, her wicked sense of humour. A true adventurer!
Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.
It was late on an August afternoon, the air hot and heavy like it usually was in the rainy season. Earlier we’d seen some thunderheads near the Burnt Spring Hills, but they’d passed way up to the north. I’d mostly finished my chores for the day and was heading down to the pasture with my brother, Buster, and my sister, Helen, to bring the cows in for their milking. But when we got there, those girls were acting all bothered. Instead of milling around at the gate, like they usually did at milking time, they were standing stiff-legged and straight-tailed, twitching their heads around, listening.
Buster and Helen looked up at me, and without a word, I knelt down and pressed my ear to the hard-packed dirt. There was a rumbling, so faint and low that you felt it more than you heard it. Then I knew what the cows knew — a flash flood was coming.
As I stood up, the cows bolted, heading for the southern fence line, and when they reached the barbed wire, they jumped over it — higher and cleaner than I’d ever seen cows jump — and then they thundered off toward higher ground.
I figured we best bolt, too, so I grabbed Helen and Buster by the hand. By then I could feel the ground rumbling through my shoes. I saw the first water sluicing through the lowest part of the pasture, and I knew we didn’t have time to make it to higher ground ourselves. In the middle of the field was an old cottonwood tree, broad-branched and gnarled, and we ran for that.
Helen stumbled, so Buster grabbed her other hand, and we lifted her off the ground and carried her between us as we ran. When we reached the cottonwood, I pushed Buster up to the lowest branch, and he pulled Helen into the tree behind him. I shimmied up and wrapped my arms around Helen just as a wall of water, about six feet high and pushing rocks and tree limbs in front of it, slammed into the cottonwood, dousing all three of us. The tree shuddered and bent over so far that you could hear wood cracking, and some lower branches were torn off. I feared it might be uprooted, but the cottonwood held fast and so did we, our arms locked as a great rush of caramel-colored water, filled with bits of wood and the occasional matted gopher and tangle of snakes, surged beneath us, spreading out across the lowland and seeking its level.
We just sat there in that cottonwood tree watching for about an hour. The sun started to set over the Burnt Spring Hills, turning the high clouds crimson and sending long purple shadows eastward. The water was still flowing beneath us, and Helen said her arms were getting tired. She was only seven and was afraid she couldn’t hold on much longer.
Buster, who was nine, was perched up in the big fork of the tree. I was ten, the oldest, and I took charge, telling Buster to trade places with Helen so she could sit upright without having to cling too hard. A little while later, it got dark, but a bright moon came out and we could see just fine. From time to time we all switched places so no one’s arms would wear out. The bark was chafing my thighs, and Helen’s, too, and when we needed to pee, we had to just wet ourselves. About halfway through the night, Helen’s voice started getting weak.
“I can’t hold on any longer,” she said.
“Yes, you can,” I told her. “You can because you have to.” We were going to make it, I told them. I knew we would make it because I could see it in my mind. I could see us walking up the hill to the house tomorrow morning, and I could see Mom and Dad running out. It would happen — but it was up to us to make it happen.
To keep Helen and Buster from drifting off to sleep and falling out of the cottonwood, I grilled them on their multiplication tables. When we’d run through those, I went on to presidents and state capitals, then word definitions, word rhymes, and whatever else I could come up with, snapping at them if their voices faltered, and that was how I kept Helen and Buster awake through the night.
By first light, you could see that the water still covered the ground. In most places, a flash flood drained away after a couple of hours, but the pasture was in bottomland near the river, and sometimes the water remained for days. But it had stopped moving and had begun seeping down through the sinkholes and mudflats.
“We made it,” I said.
I figured it would be safe to wade through the water, so we scrambled out of the cottonwood tree. We were so stiff from holding on all night that our joints could scarcely move, and the mud kept sucking at our shoes, but we got to dry land as the sun was coming up and climbed the hill to the house just the way I had seen it.
Dad was on the porch, pacing back and forth in that uneven stride he had on account of his gimp leg. When he saw us, he let out a yelp of delight and started hobbling down the steps toward us. Mom came running out of the house. She sank to her knees, clasped her hands in front of her, and started praying up to the heavens, thanking the Lord for delivering her children from the flood.
It was she who had saved us, she declared, by staying up all night praying. “You get down on your knees and thank your guardian angel,” she said. “And you thank me, too.”
Helen and Buster got down and started praying with Mom, but I just stood there looking at them. The way I saw it, I was the one who’d saved us all, not Mom and not some guardian angel. No one was up in that cottonwood tree except the three of us. Dad came alongside me and put his arm around my shoulders.
“There weren’t no guardian angel, Dad,” I said. I started explaining how I’d gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them.
Dad squeezed my shoulder. “Well, darling,” he said, “maybe the angel was you.”
We had a homestead on Salt Draw, which flowed into the Pecos River, in the rolling gritty grassland of west Texas. The sky was high and pale, the land low and washed out, gray and every color of sand. Sometimes the wind blew for days on end, but sometimes it was so still you could hear the dog barking on the Dingler ranch two miles upriver, and when a wagon came down the road, the dust it trailed hung in the air for a long time before drifting back to the ground.
When you looked out across the land, most everything you could see — the horizon, the river, the fence lines, the gullies, the scrub cedar — was spread out and flat, and the people, cattle, horses, lizards, and water all moved slowly, conserving themselves.
It was hard country. The ground was like rock — save for when a flood turned everything to mud — the animals were bony and tough, and even the plants were prickly and sparse, though from time to time the thunderstorms brought out startling bursts of wildflowers. Dad said High Lonesome, as the area was known, wasn’t a place for the soft of head or the weak of heart, and he said that was why he and I made out just fine there, because we were both tough nuts.
Our homestead was only 160 acres, which was not a whole lot of land in that part of Texas, where it was so dry you needed at least five acres to raise a single head of cattle. But our spread bordered the draw, so it was ten times more valuable than land without water, and we were able to keep the carriage horses Dad trained, the milking cows, dozens of chickens, some hogs, and the peacocks.
The peacocks were one of Dad’s moneymaking schemes that didn’t quite pan out. Dad had paid a lot of money to import breeding peacocks from a farm back east. He was convinced that peacocks were a sure-fire sign of elegance and style, and that folks who bought carriage horses from him would also be willing to shell out fifty bucks for one of those classy birds. He planned to sell only the male birds so we’d be the sole peacock breeders this side of the Pecos.
Unfortunately, Dad overestimated the demand for ornamental birds in west Texas — even among the carriage set — and within a few years, our ranch was overrun with peacocks. They strutted around screeching and squawking, pecking our knees, scaring the horses, killing chicks, and attacking the hogs, though I have to admit it was a glorious sight when, from time to time, those peacocks paused in their campaign of terror to spread their plumes and preen.
The peacocks were just a sideline. Dad’s primary occupation was the carriage horses, breeding them and training them. He loved horses despite the accident. When Dad was a boy of three, he was running through the stable and a horse kicked him in the head, practically staving in his skull. Dad was in a coma for days, and no one thought he’d pull through. He eventually did, but the right side of his body had gone a little gimp. His right leg sort of dragged behind him, and his arm was cocked like a chicken wing. Also, when he was young, he’d spent long hours working in the noisy gristmill on his family’s ranch, which made him hard of hearing. As such, he talked a little funny, and until you spent time around him, you had trouble understanding what he said.
Dad never blamed the horse for kicking him. All the horse knew, he liked to say, was that some creature about the size of a mountain lion was darting by his flanks. Horses were never wrong. They always did what they did for a reason, and it was up to you to figure it out. And even though it was a horse that almost stove in Dad’s skull, he loved horses because, unlike people, they always understood him and never pitied him. So, even though Dad was unable to sit in a saddle on account of the accident, he became an expert at training carriage horses. If he couldn’t ride them, he could drive them.
I was born in a dugout on the banks of Salt Draw in 1901, the year after Dad got out of prison, where he’d been serving time on that trumped-up murder charge.
Dad had grown up on a ranch in the Hondo Valley in New Mexico. His pa, who’d homesteaded the land, was one of the first Anglos in the valley, arriving there in 1868, but by the time Dad was a young man, more settlers had moved into the area than the river could support, and there were constant arguments over property lines and, especially, water rights — people claiming their upstream neighbors were using more than their fair share of water, while downstream neighbors made the same claim against them. These disputes often led to brawls, lawsuits, and shootings. Dad’s pa, Robert Casey, was murdered in one such dispute when Dad was fourteen. Dad stayed on to run the ranch with his ma, but those disputes kept erupting, and twenty years later, when a settler was killed after yet another argument, Dad was convicted of murdering him.
Dad insisted he’d been framed, writing long letters to legislators and newspaper editors protesting his innocence, and after serving three years in prison, he was set free. Shortly after he was released, he met and married my mom. The prosecutor was looking into retrying the case, and Dad thought that would be less likely if he made himself scarce, so he and my mom left the Hondo Valley for High Lonesome, where they claimed our land along Salt Draw.
Lots of the folks homesteading in High Lonesome lived in dugouts because timber was so scarce in that part of Texas. Dad had made our home by shoveling out what was more or less a big hole on the side of the riverbank, using cedar branches as rafters and covering them over with sod. The dugout had one room, a packed earth floor, a wooden door, a waxed-paper window, and a cast-iron stove with a flue that jutted up through the sod roof.
The best thing about living in the dugout was that it was cool in the summer and not too cold in the winter. The worst thing about it was that, from time to time, scorpions, lizards, snakes, gophers, centipedes, and moles wormed their way out of our walls and ceilings. Once, in the middle of an Easter dinner, a rattler dropped onto the table. Dad, who was carving the ham, brought the knife right down behind that snake’s head.
Also, whenever it rained, the ceilings and walls in the dugout turned to mud. Sometimes clumps of that mud dropped from the ceiling and you had to pat it back in place. And every now and then, the goats grazing on the roof would stick a hoof clear through and we’d have to pull them out.
Another problem with living in the dugout was the mosquitoes. They were so thick that sometimes you felt like you were swimming through them. Mom was particularly susceptible to them — her bite marks sometimes stayed swollen for days — but I was the one who came down with yellow jack fever.
I was seven at the time, and after the first day, I was writhing on the bed, shivering and vomiting. Mom was afraid that everyone else might catch the disease, so even though Dad insisted that you got it from mosquitoes, he rigged up a quilt to quarantine me off. Dad was the only one who was allowed behind it, and he sat with me for days, splashing me with spirit lotions, trying to bring the fever down. While I was delirious, I visited bright white places in another world and saw green and purple beasts that grew and shrank with every beat of my heart.
When the fever finally broke, I weighed some ten pounds less than I had before, and my skin was all yellow. Dad joked that my forehead had been so hot he almost burned his hand when he touched it. Mom poked her head behind the quilt to see me. “A fever that high can boil your brain and cause permanent damage,” Mom said. “So don’t ever tell anyone you had it. You do, you might have trouble catching a husband.”
Mom worried about things like her daughters catching the right husband. She was concerned with what she called “proprieties.” Mom had furnished our dugout with some real finery, including an Oriental rug, a chaise longue with a lace doily, velvet curtains that we hung on the walls to make it look like we had more windows, a silver serving set, and a carved walnut headboard that her parents had brought with them from back east when they moved to California. Mom treasured that headboard and said it was the only thing that allowed her to sleep at night because it reminded her of the civilized world.
Mom’s father was a miner who had struck gold north of San Francisco and became fairly prosperous. Although her family lived in mining boom towns, Mom — whose maiden name was Daisy Mae Peacock — was raised in an atmosphere of gentility. She had soft white skin that was easily sunburned and bruised. When she was a child, her mother made her wear a linen mask if she had to spend any time in the sun, tying it to the yellow curls on the side of her face. In west Texas, Mom always wore a hat and gloves and a veil over her face when she went outdoors, which she did as seldom as possible.
Mom kept up the dugout, but she refused to do chores like toting water or carrying firewood. “Your mother’s a lady,” Dad would say by way of explaining her disdain for manual labor. Dad did most of the outdoor work with the help of our hand, Apache. Apache wasn’t really an Indian, but he’d been captured by the Apaches when he was six, and they kept him until he was a young man, when the U.S. Cavalry — with Dad’s pa serving as a scout — raided the camp and Apache ran out yelling, “Soy blanco! Soy blanco!“
Apache had gone home with Dad’s pa and lived with the family ever since. By now Apache was an old man, with a white beard so long that he tucked it in his pants. Apache was a loner and sometimes spent hours staring at the horizon or the barn wall, and he’d also disappear into the range now and then for days at a time, but he always came back. Folks considered Apache a little peculiar, but that’s what they also thought of Dad, and the two of them got along just fine.
To cook and wash, Mom had the help of our servant girl, Lupe, who had gotten pregnant and was forced to leave her village outside Juárez after the baby was born because she had brought shame on the family and no one would marry her. She was small and a little barrel-shaped and even more devoutly Catholic than Mom. Buster called her “Loopy,” but I liked Lupe. Although her parents had taken her baby from her and she slept on a Navajo blanket on the dugout floor, Lupe never felt sorry for herself, and that was something I decided I admired most in people.
Even with Lupe helping her out, Mom didn’t really care for life on Salt Draw. She hadn’t bargained for it. Mom thought she’d married well when she took Adam Casey as her husband, despite his limp and speech impediment. Dad’s pa had come over from Ireland during a potato blight, joined the Second Dragoons — one of the first cavalry units of the U.S. Army — where he served under Colonel Robert E. Lee, and was stationed on the Texas frontier, fighting Comanches, Apaches, and Kiowa. After leaving the army, he took up ranching, first in Texas, then in the Hondo Valley, and by the time he was killed, he had one of the biggest herds in the area.
Robert Casey was shot down as he walked along the main street of Lincoln, New Mexico. One version of the story held that he and the man who killed him had disagreed over an eight-dollar debt. The murderer’s hanging was talked about for years in the valley because, once he’d been hanged, declared dead, cut down, and put in his pine box, people heard him moving around, so they took him out and strung him up again.
After Robert Casey’s death, his children started arguing over how to split up the herd, which fostered bad blood that lasted for the rest of Dad’s life. Dad inherited the Hondo Valley spread, but he felt his elder brother, who’d taken the herd to Texas, had cheated him out of his share, and he was constantly filing lawsuits and appeals. He continued the campaign even after moving to west Texas, and he was also battling away with the other ranchers in the Hondo Valley, traveling back to New Mexico to lodge an endless stream of claims and counterclaims.
One thing about Dad was that he had a terrible temper, and he usually returned from these trips trembling with rage. Part of it was his Irish blood, and part of it was his impatience with folks who had trouble understanding what he said. He felt those people thought he was a lamebrain and were always trying to cheat him, whether it was his brothers and their lawyers, traveling merchants, or half-breed-horse traders. He’d start sputtering and cursing, and from time to time, he’d become so incensed that he’d pull out his pistol and plug away at things, aiming to miss people — most of the time.
Once he got into an argument with a tinker who overcharged to repair the kettle. When the tinker started to mock the way he talked, Dad ran inside to get his guns, but Lupe had seen what was coming and hidden them in her Navajo blanket. Dad worked himself into a lather, hollering about his missing guns, but I was convinced Lupe saved that tinker’s life. And probably Dad’s as well, since if he’d killed the tinker, he might have ended up swinging, hanged like the man who’d shot his pa.
Life would be easier, Dad kept saying, once we got our due. But we were only going to get it by fighting for it. Dad was all caught up in his lawsuits, but for the rest of us, the constant fight on Salt Draw was the one against the elements. The flash flood that sent Buster, Helen, and me up the cottonwood wasn’t the only one that almost did us in. Floods were pretty common in that part of Texas — you could count on one every couple of years — and when I was eight, we were hit by another big one. Dad was away in Austin filing another claim about his inheritance when one night Salt Draw overflowed and poured into our dugout. The sound of thunder awoke me, and when I got up, my feet sank into muddy water up to my ankles. Mom took Helen and Buster to high ground to pray, but I stayed behind with Apache and Lupe. We barricaded the door with the rug and started bailing the water out the window. Mom came back and begged us to go pray with her on the hilltop.
“To heck with praying!” I shouted. “Bail, dammit, bail!”
Mom looked mortified. I could tell she thought I’d probably doomed us all with my blasphemy, and I was a little shocked at it myself, but with the water rising so fast, the situation was dire. We had lit the kerosene lamp, and we could see that the walls of the dugout were beginning to sag inward. If Mom had pitched in and helped, there was a chance we might have been able to save the dugout — not a good chance, but a fighting chance. Apache and Lupe and I couldn’t do it on our own, though, and when the ceiling started to cave, we grabbed Mom’s walnut headboard and pulled it through the door just as the dugout collapsed in on itself, burying everything.
Afterward, I was pretty aggravated with Mom. She kept saying that the flood was God’s will and we had to submit to it. But I didn’t see things that way. Submitting seemed to me a lot like giving up. If God gave us the strength to bail — the gumption to try to save ourselves — isn’t that what he wanted us to do?
But the flood turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It was all too much for that tenderfoot, Mr. McClurg, who lived up the draw in a two-room wooden house that he had built with timber he carted in from New Mexico. The flood washed away Mr. McClurg’s foundation, and the walls fell apart. He said he’d had it with this godforsaken part of the world and decided to return to Cleveland. As soon as Dad got home from Austin, he had us all jump in the wagon and — quickly, before anyone else in High Lonesome got the same idea — we drove over to scavenge Mr. McClurg’s lumber. We took everything: siding, rafters, beams, door frames, floorboards. By the end of the summer, we had built ourselves a brand-new wooden house, and after we whitewashed it, you almost couldn’t tell that it had been patched together with someone else’s old wood.
As we all stood there admiring our house the day we finished it, Mom turned to me and said, “Now, wasn’t that flood God’s will?”
I didn’t have an answer. Mom could say that in hindsight, but it seemed to me that when you were in the middle of something, it was awful hard to figure out what part of it was God’s will and what wasn’t.
I asked Dad if he believed that everything that happened was God’s will.
“Is and isn’t,” he said. “God deals us all different hands. How we play ‘em is up to us.”
I wondered if Dad thought that God had dealt him a bad hand, but I didn’t feel it was my place to ask. From time to time, Dad mentioned the horse kicking him in the head, but none of us ever talked about his gimp leg or his trouble speaking.
Dad’s speech impediment did make it sound a little like he was talking underwater. If he said, “Hitch up the carriage,” it sounded to most people like “Ich’p uh urrj,” and if he said, “Mama needs to rest,” it sounded like “Uhmu neesh resh.”
Toyah, the nearest little town, was four miles away, and sometimes when we went there, the kids followed Dad around imitating him, which made me want to thrash them something fierce. A lot of times, particularly when Mom was there, too, Buster, Helen, and I could do little more than glare at them. Dad usually acted like those kids didn’t exist — after all, he could hardly run for his gun to shoot them, like he had with that tinker — but once, at the Toyah stable, when a couple of them were especially loud, I saw him glance down with a wounded look. While he and Buster were loading the wagon, I went back to the stable and tried to explain to those kids that they were hurting people’s feelings, but all they did was snicker, so I shoved them into the manure pile and ran. I’d never done a bad thing that gave me so much satisfaction. My only regret was that I couldn’t tell Dad about it.
What those kids didn’t understand about Dad was that, although his speech did sound sort of marbly, he was smart. He’d been taught by a governess, and he was all the time reading books on philosophy and writing long letters to politicians like William Taft, William Jennings Bryan, and Frederick William Seward, who had been Abraham Lincoln’s assistant secretary of state. Seward even wrote back, letters Dad treasured and kept in a locked tin box.
When it came to the written word, no one could string together sentences like Dad. His handwriting was elegant, if a little spidery, and his sentences were long and extravagant, filled with words like “mendacious” and “abscond” that most of the folks in Toyah would need a dictionary to understand. Two of Dad’s biggest concerns in his letters were industrialization and mechanization, which he felt were destroying the human soul. He was also obsessed with Prohibition and phonetic spelling, both of which he saw as cures for mankind’s tendency toward irrational behavior.
Dad had come of age seeing too many liquored-up people blazing away at one another. His pa had sold liquor from the store he ran on the Rio Hondo ranch, but his pa also once had to shoot a drunk who tried to shoot him. Alcohol, Dad said, made Indians and Irishmen crazy. After his pa was killed, Dad axed the store’s liquor barrels, and to Apache’s deep regret, he didn’t allow anything stronger than tea on the ranch.
The inconsistent spelling of words in the English language also vexed Dad to no end. Digraphs such as “sh” and “ph” infuriated him, and silent letters made him grieve. If words were simply spelled the way they were pronounced, he argued, pretty much anyone who learned the alphabet could read, and that would virtually wipe out illiteracy.
Toyah had a one-room schoolhouse, but Dad thought that the teaching there was second-rate and he could do better tutoring me. Every day after lunch, when the sun was too hot to work outside, we did lessons — grammar, history, arithmetic, science, and civics — and when we were done, I tutored Buster and Helen. Dad’s favorite subject was history, but he taught it with a decidedly west-of-the-Pecos point of view. As the proud son of an Irishman, he hated the English Pilgrims, whom he called “Poms,” as well as most of the founding fathers. They were a bunch of pious hypocrites, he thought, who declared all men equal but kept slaves and massacred peaceful Indians. He sided with the Mexicans in the Mexican-American war and thought the United States had stolen all the land north of the Rio Grande, but he also thought the southern states should have had as much right to leave the union as the colonies had to leave the British Empire. “Only difference between a traitor and a patriot is your perspective,” he said.
I loved my lessons, particularly science and geometry, loved learning that there were these invisible rules that explained the mysteries of the world we lived in. Smart as that made me feel, Mom and Dad kept saying that even though I was getting a better education at home than any of the kids in Toyah, I’d need to go to finishing school when I was thirteen, both to acquire social graces and to earn a diploma. Because in this world, Dad said, it’s not enough to have a fine education. You need a piece of paper to prove you got it.
Mom did her best to keep us kids genteel. While I was teaching Buster and Helen, she brushed my hair one hundred strokes, careful to pull backward away from my scalp, putting marrow and lanolin into it to increase its luster. At night, she curled it into ringlets with little pieces of paper she called papillotes. “A lady’s hair is her crowning glory,” she said, and she was always going on about how my widow’s peak was my best feature, but when I looked in the mirror, that little V of hair at the top of my forehead didn’t seem like much to bank on.
Even though we lived four miles from Toyah and days would go by without seeing anyone outside the family, Mom worked very hard at being a lady. She was dainty, only four and a half feet tall, and her feet were so small that she had to wear button-up boots made for girls. To keep her hands elegantly white, she rubbed them with pastes made from honey, lemon juice, and borax. She wore tight corsets to give her a teeny waist — I helped her lace them up — but they had the effect of causing her to faint. Mom called it the vapors and said it was a sign of her high breeding and delicate nature. I thought it was a sign that the corset made it hard to breathe. Whenever she’d keel over, I’d have to revive her with smelling salts, which she kept in a crystal bottle tied around her neck with a pink ribbon.
Mom was closest to Helen, who had inherited her tiny hands and feet and her frail constitution. Sometimes they read poetry to each other, and in the stifling midafternoon heat, they’d simply lie together on Mom’s chaise longue. But while she was close to Helen, she completely doted on Buster, the only son, whom she considered the future of the family. Buster was a rabbity little kid, but he had an irresistible smile, and maybe to compensate for Dad’s speech impediment, he was one of the fastest and smoothest talkers in the county. Mom liked to say Buster could charm the sage off the brush. She was always telling Buster there were no limits on what he could become — a railroad magnate, a cattle baron, a general, or even the governor of Texas.
Mom didn’t quite know what to make of me. She feared she might have trouble marrying me off because I didn’t have the makings of a lady. I was a little bowlegged, for one thing. Mom said it was because I rode horses too much. Also, my front teeth jutted out, so she bought me a red silk fan to cover my mouth. Whenever I laughed or smiled too big, Mom would say, “Lily, dear, the fan.”
Since Mom wasn’t exactly the most useful person in the world, one lesson I learned at an early age was how to get things done, and this was a source of both amazement and concern for Mom, who considered my behavior unladylike but also counted on me. “I never knew a girl to have such gumption,” she’d say. “But I’m not too sure that’s a good thing.”
The way Mom saw it, women should let menfolk do the work because it made them feel more manly. That notion made sense only if you had a strong man willing to step up and get things done, and between Dad’s gimp, Buster’s elaborate excuses, and Apache’s tendency to disappear, it was often up to me to keep the place from falling apart. But even when everyone was pitching in, we never got out from under all the work. I loved that ranch, though sometimes it did seem that instead of us owning the place, the place owned us.
We’d heard about electricity and how some big cities back east were wired with so many glowing lightbulbs that it looked like daytime even after the sun had set. But those wires had yet to reach west Texas, so you had to do everything by hand, heating irons on the stove to press Mom’s blouses, cooking cauldrons of lye and potash over the fire to make soap, working the pump, then toting clean water in to wash the dishes and dirty water out to pour on the vegetable garden.
We’d also heard about the indoor plumbing they were installing in fancy houses back east, but no one in west Texas had it, and most people, including Mom and Dad, thought the idea of an indoor bathroom was vile and disgusting. “Who in the Lord’s name would want a crapper in the house?” Dad asked.
Since I grew up listening to Dad, I always understood him completely, and when I turned five, he had me start helping him train the horses. It took Dad six years to train a pair of carriage horses properly, and he had six teams going at all times, selling off one team a year, which was enough to make ends meet. A team had to be perfectly matched in size and color, with no irregularities, and if one horse had white socks, the other needed them as well.
Of the six pairs of horses we’d have, Dad let the yearlings and two-year-olds simply run free in the pasture. “First thing a horse needs to learn is to be a horse,” he liked to say. I worked with the three-year-olds, teaching them ground manners and getting them to accept the bit, then helped Dad harness and unharness the three pairs of older horses. I’d drive each pair in a circle while Dad stood in the middle, using a whip to drill them, making sure they lifted their feet high, changed gaits in unison, and flexed their necks smartly.
Everyone who spent time around horses, Dad liked to say, needed to learn to think like a horse. He was always repeating that phrase: “Think like a horse.” The key to that, he said, was understanding that horses were always afraid. The only way they could save themselves from mountain lions and wolves was to kick out and run, and they ran like the wind, racing one another, because it was the slowest horse in the herd that got taken down by the predator. They were all the time looking for a protector, and if you could convince a horse that you’d protect him, he would do anything for you.
Dad had a whole vocabulary of grunts, murmurs, clucks, tocks, and whistles that he used to speak with horses. It was like their own private language. He never flogged their backs, instead using the whip to make a small popping sound on either side of their ears, signaling them without ever hurting or frightening them.
Dad also made tack for the horses, and he seemed happiest sitting by himself, humming at his sewing machine, working the foot pedal, surrounded by hides, shears, cans of neat’s-foot oil, spools of stitching threads, and his big saddler’s needles, no one bothering him, no one feeling sorry for him, no one scratching their heads trying to figure out what it was he wanted to say.
I was in charge of breaking the horses. It wasn’t like breaking wild mustangs, because our horses had been around us since they were foals. Most times I simply climbed on bareback — if the horse was too skinny, its spine sometimes rubbed a raw spot on my behind — grabbed a handful of mane, gave them a nudge with my heels, and off we went, at first in awkward fits and starts, with a little crow hopping and swerving while the horse wondered what in tarnation a girl was doing on his back, but pretty soon the horse usually accepted his fate and we’d move along right nicely. After that, it was a matter of saddling him up and finding the best bit. Then you could set about training him.
Still, particularly with a green horse, you never knew what to expect, and I got thrown plenty, which terrified Mom, but Dad just waved her off and helped me up.
“Most important thing in life,” he would say, “is learning how to fall.”
Sometimes you fell in slow motion. The horse stumbled or shied, your weight got thrown forward, and you ended up hugging the horse’s neck, your feet losing their lock in the stirrups. If you couldn’t right yourself, your best bet was to let go and roll off to the side, then keep rolling once you hit the ground. The dangerous falls were the ones that happened so fast you didn’t have time to react.
Dad once bought this big gray gelding for a song. The horse had been in the U.S. Cavalry, and since he was government-issue, Dad named him Roosevelt. Maybe it was because Roosevelt had been fed too much grain, maybe because he’d heard too many bugle calls and too many cannons fired, or maybe he was just born a worrier, but for whatever reason, he was one spooky horse. Roosevelt was beautiful to look at, with dappled hindquarters and dark legs, but sudden noises or movement made him jump up like a jackrabbit.
Shortly after we got Roosevelt, I was riding him back to the barn when a hawk swooped down in front of us. Roosevelt spun around and I was flung off him like a rock out of a slingshot. I tried to break the fall with my arm and ended up snapping my forearm clean in two. The jagged ends of the bones were poking up, making a bulge under my skin. Dad was always telling me I was one tough nut, but with my arm bent and dangling like that, danged if I didn’t start bawling like a little girl.
Dad carried me into the kitchen, and when Mom saw me, she got so upset she started gasping for breath, telling Dad when she could get the words out that a little girl like me had no business breaking horses. Dad told Mom she had best leave until she could get control of herself, and she went into the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Dad set the bone and had Lupe cut strips of linen while he made up a paste of chalk, gum, eggs, and flour. Then he wrapped the linen strips around my arm and smeared them all over with the paste.
Dad took me in his arms and we set on the porch looking at the distant mountains. After a while, I stopped crying because there just wasn’t any cry left in me by then. I sat there with my head on my shoulder like a little bird with a broken wing.
“Dumb horse,” I finally said.
“Never blame the horse,” Dad said. “It’s just something he learned along the way. And horses aren’t dumb. They know what they need to know. Matter of fact, I always figured horses are smarter than they let on. Kind of like the Indians who pretend they can’t speak English because no good ever came from talking with the Anglos.”
Dad told me I’d be back in the saddle in four weeks, and I was. “Next time,” Dad said, “don’t try to break a fall.”
“Next time?” Mom asked. “I trust there won’t be a next time.”
“Hope for the best and plan for the worst,” Dad said. “Anyway,” he told me, “once you’re going down, accept it and let your rump take the punishment. Your body knows how to fall.”
Meanwhile, Dad enrolled Roosevelt in what he called Adam Casey’s School for Wayward Horses. He tied Roosevelt’s head to his tail and left him to stand in a stall until he learned patience. He filled empty tin cans with pebbles and tied those to his mane and tail until Roosevelt got used to commotion.
Once Roosevelt was reformed — more or less — Dad sold him at a nice profit to some easterners bound for California. While Dad didn’t blame horses for anything, he wasn’t sentimental about them, either. If you can’t stop a horse, sell him, Dad liked to say, and if you can’t sell him, shoot him.
Another one of my jobs was feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs. We had about two dozen chickens and a few roosters. First thing every morning, I’d toss them a handful of corn and some table scraps and add lime to their water to make the eggshells strong. In the spring, when the hens were really fertile, I could collect a hundred eggs a week. We’d set aside twenty-five or thirty for eating, and once a week I drove the buckboard into Toyah to sell the rest to the grocer, Mr. Clutterbuck, a pinched man who wore garters on his sleeves and toted up sales figures on the brown paper he wrapped your goods in. He paid a penny per egg, then sold them for two cents each, which seemed unfair to me since I’d done all the work, raising the chickens, collecting the eggs, and bringing them into town, but Mr. Clutterbuck just said, “Sorry, kid, that’s the way the world works.”
I also brought in peacock eggs, finally giving those showy old birds a way to earn their keep. At first I thought they’d fetch twice as much as chicken eggs, seeing as how they were twice as big, but Mr. Clutterbuck would give me only a penny each for them. “Egg’s an egg,” he said. I thought that danged grocer was cheating me because I was a girl, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it. That was the way the world worked.
Dad said it was good for me to go into town and bargain with Mr. Clutterbuck over egg prices. It honed my math and taught me the art of negotiation, all of which was going to help me achieve my Purpose in Life. Dad was a philosopher and had what he called his Theory of Purpose, which held that everything in life had a purpose, and unless it achieved that purpose, it was just taking up space on the planet and wasting everybody’s time.
That was why Dad never bought any of us kids toys. Play was a waste of time, he said. Instead of playing house or playing with dolls, girls were better off cleaning a real house or looking after a real baby if their Purpose in Life was to become a mother.
Dad didn’t actually forbid us from ever playing, and sometimes Buster, Helen, and I rode over to the Dingler ranch for a game of baseball with the Dingler kids. Because we didn’t have enough players for two full teams, we made up a lot of our own rules, one being that you could get a runner out by throwing the ball at him. Once, when I was ten and trying to steal a base, one of the Dingler boys threw the ball at me hard and it hit me in the stomach. I doubled over, and when the pain wouldn’t go away, Dad took me into Toyah, where the barber who sometimes sewed people up said my appendix had been ruptured and I needed to get up to the hospital in Santa Fe. We caught the next stagecoach, and by the time we got to Santa Fe, I was delirious, and what I remember next was waking up in the hospital with stitches on my stomach, Dad sitting next to me.
“Don’t worry, angel,” he said. The appendix, he explained, was a vestigial organ, which meant it had no Purpose. If I had to lose an organ, I’d chosen the right one. But, he went on, I’d almost lost my life, and to what end? I’d only been playing a game of baseball. If I wanted to risk my life, I should do it for a Purpose. I decided Dad was right. All I had to do was figure out what my Purpose was.
Copyright © 2009 by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and grew up in the southwest and Welch, West Virginia. She graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York City for twenty years. Her previous book was the memoir The Glass Castle. She is married to writer John Taylor and lives in Virginia.