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The Ranch


Lilly was ten years old when she became aware that there was more. The ranch had been her whole world up until that Monday in 1926 when there she was in the big city of El Paso. Oh she had gone to the trading post twenty miles from the ranch with her dad Big John or her mom DeDe May and to neighboring ranches while growing up, but it took a half day by horseback or wagon so they didn’t go often. Walter Goad’s trading post was fun with its little post office in the back corner. The place had canned goods, household items and some clothing. You could even buy what folks brought in to trade like eggs or butter or vegetables from a summer garden. The blacksmith’s falling down building with its four stalls was down the rutted dirt street and beyond that Elmer Smith’s big old gray barn stood full of hay and fire wood and sometimes milled lumber. Their houses and the veterinarian’s house and barn were even further down the street. But that day in early September, there she was with her family in the big city miles from the ranch. They had made the trip in their old 1914 Dodge Traveling Car. It had been up on blocks for years, but they had cleaned it up and filled it up with gasoline and she and Jonathan, his mother Maria, and Big John and DeDe May had scrunched in with luggage and headed for El Paso. Once there, the noise - - - so many people going here and there, the paved streets, the buildings, she was overwhelmed. She and her family were here to enroll Jonathan in high school. Her world was changing and she was not happy.


***********

Lilly’s usual world in her west Texas desert at the far west tip of Texas along the Rio Grande was mostly quiet and she woke summer mornings to the sweet smell of sage as fresh dry air spilled through the open window into her upstairs bedroom. The winter months kept her snuggled under layers of quilts a while longer until the smells of breakfast drove her to dive into her jeans and shirt and race downstairs. Fall roundup days had her jumping out of bed early to make sure she didn’t get left behind. She always hoped she could persuade Big John or Jonathan or Virgil to let her tag along.


One fall morning when she was six years old she had run down the stairs and into the kitchen to find that DeDe and Maria had fed all the men, including the two extra hired hands there for roundup and branding, and were sitting down to eat. Maria Masters had come across the Rio Grande onto the ranch with her small son Jonathan just before Lilly was born and asked for work. She had come with a black eye and bruises and spoke only a little English. DeDe had asked no questions about family or father of the child, she simply put the young woman to work, helping her in the kitchen, and Maria and Jonathan had been family ever since.


DeDe had worked hard every day since arriving at the ranch in 1915. She had ridden fences, branded cattle and helped with calving right alongside Big John the first few years. She was still a very handsome woman, tall, strong and healthy. She went about her busy days with good humor but no nonsense from anyone. Her dark curling hair was caught up in a bun and she wore jeans and boots and a chest to knees black apron over her white shirt. This morning she greeted her young daughter with a, “Good morning sunshine,” never looking up or missing a bite of ham and eggs. She ruled the two story ranch house that Big John had built 12 years ago and the men did not question her.


Tiny Maria, her long dark hair in a braid down her back, jumped up to fill a plate for the skinny six year old. “Remember, school starts today,” she said. Lilly immediately stopped in her tracks, deflated. “Oh no, I forgot. DeDe do we have to do that today? I need to help with the roundup, Jon needs to help with the roundup.”


DeDe said, shaking her head, “Yes, we have to do that today.”


“Please, just one more day,” she pleaded with those sad blue eyes? “Start tomorrow? Maria, talk to her, tomorrow?”


Maria just smiled and put Lilly’s plate on the table and sat down to finish her breakfast, “My son is eleven years old with no schooling Lilly. It is very important that you two get an education and your mom is good to give her time to teach you.”


Rising from the table to put her dishes on the counter in the big old kitchen DeDe said “Jonathan is showing the two additional hired hands what they should be doing today, neither speaks English, and then he will join us to start lessons. We will only work two hours a day today and the rest of the week because Big John is depending on Jonathan’s help, but after roundup we will work four hours a day.”


Lilly knew it was no use arguing with DeDe so she gulped down her breakfast, grabbed her hat and ran out the back door towards the barn. The barn smelled of the soil beneath her feet and the hay in the hayloft above the stalls. It smelled of leather and manure. She loved the rich smell and knew every inch of up top and down below. One stall was full of saddles and blankets and ropes and gear and one was full of feed. She stopped to adjust her eyes to the dark after running through the bright sunlight and saw Jonathan saddling his horse in the wide space between the stalls. He stopped and ran straight towards Lilly to punch her arm and feign a second punch in a boxer’s pose and she dutifully squealed and started to run at him and push him against a stall. He dodged and taunted her for being a “weenie.”

“Stop it you two,” said Virgil. “You want a horse this mornin Lil’may?” he asked.


We can’t ride this morning Verg. We have to go to school.”


“Ain’t no school around here.”


“There is now.”


Jonathan laid his forehead against the saddle. “I was hoping they forgot.”


“Nope,” grimaced Lilly.


Jonathan unsaddled his horse and the two of them headed back across the red dirt yard toward the house.


The weathered, two story house had four bedrooms upstairs and the big kitchen and Big John’s and DeDe May’s bedroom and sitting room downstairs. Winters were usually mild, but should a blue norther blow in, the wood stoves downstairs struggled just to keep the downstairs rooms warm so one took a warm brick wrapped in a towel to bed upstairs with them those nights. Wood for the stoves was not easy to come by. Some of the sections had a tree or two near a tank filled by windmill and there were a few low twisted trees along the creek beyond the barn and there were a lot of tall cottonwoods and sycamores all along the Rio Grande but Big John would not allow them to be cut. He had wood hauled in once a year.


The farm house, a few miles from the river, faced south with a front porch that wrapped around the west side off the kitchen. Coming out of the kitchen onto the side porch, the barn, 500 yards across bare dirt, had big wide swinging doors facing the house. The chickens had a yard and house beyond that and the acre of land beyond was fenced for the horses. Horses needed to be close at hand each morning to work the huge ranch running 2,500 head of cattle.


***********

Big John, born John Hersh in 1877, worked his parents’ ranch in Oklahoma alongside his brother Samuel and his wife and children until he was 30 years old. He was a broad shouldered six foot man and a hard worker. He had graduated from the University of Oklahoma where he had played football in 1899. On his 30th birthday, John decided he needed to see what else might be out there in the world. He decided he needed to see an ocean. He needed to see California. With his family’s blessings he packed his bag and headed west.


On the train going out he happened to sit next to Walter Goad, a merchant headed for El Paso, who had been visiting family in Oklahoma. They had dinner together in the dining car and Walter talked about his business and buying supplies in El Paso and hauling the goods to his trading post close to the border along the Rio Grande.


“How often you make that trip?” John asked.


“Once a year, cash flow allowing, and I have some items trucked in regularly from El Paso.”


“Sounds like quite a task, hope it’s worth it.”


“It is. I have met some very interesting people and love the beautiful country.”


They parted with a handshake when they arrived in El Paso and Walter wished John “Safe Trip.” John continued on to San Francisco, saw the ocean, was impressed and even took his boots off and put his feet in the water. He was fascinated by the beach and spent a day there, but the street car strike of 1907 made it hard to get around and the city still had some places blocked off because of the damage from the 1906 earthquake. He learned that an outbreak of the plague was still lingering and that made him nervous, but the biggest problem for John was the crowds and the looks he got dressed in his Stetson, jeans and cowboy boots. It seemed city life was not for him. He was a little disappointed and undecided what to do next ---- wasn’t ready to go home ------. Walter Goad’s words “beautiful country” kept ringing in his ears and he decided he wanted to see it. He remembered the name of the blacksmith that Walter had mentioned where he stored his old truck when he went to Oklahoma so he packed up and bought a ticket back to El Paso. He got there in the middle of the night and tired of the confinement of the train stretched his long legs out on one of the hard wooden benches in the train station and slept until daylight. He found a café serving coffee where he asked around and got directions to Sam’s blacksmith shop. The blacksmith said “sure” he could give John directions to Walter’s trading post but if he was interested, he was sending five horses to the blacksmith there and John was welcome to tag along.


“I’m pretty good with horses. Need a wrangler for the trip?” John asked.


“No, I got a good man but I’m sure he would not object to your company.”


“Where can I reach him and when is he leaving?”


“He’ll be leaving Monday morning, early.”


“I’ll be here.”


John got a hotel room and walked a lot of the city streets looking the town over. Monday morning he was at the blacksmith’s by four o’clock. He didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want to be left behind.


**********

After many miles of dull, hot trail all day, Virgil, the horse wrangler, and John came to a well marked on the map Sam had given them. They loosely tied their mounts to the other four horses and the three little burros that carried their supplies so that they could graze and get to the water tank, then started a fire to make a little coffee and something to eat. They fed the horses with feed bags each morning, filled their canvas bags with water, saddled up and were on the trail again by dawn. Soon the land had changed and stretched out before them. John admired the expanse of open space to the horizon and was struck by the beauty of the blaze of the red and orange sunsets. Each day they followed a trail that led to water. Some days it was a fourteen hour day and some shorter in order to get to water for the night. The two men worked smoothly together alternating days when one would tie up the horses and the other gather dried Ocotill to start a fire and make a meal.


John was in awe of the star splashed night sky as he lay on his blanket listening to the night sounds of the desert. One night as he was dosing off, a piercing, blood curdling scream jumped him to his feet. Crouched for flight his skin prickled as he tried to peer into the darkness. The horses were snorting and running around and the little burros were braying and kicking up dust. Was that a desert cougar. It had sounded so close. Was there real danger? pounded in his head. Virgil sat up looked around, pulled up his covers and went back to sleep. I guess not, thought John. When he lay back down, the stars blinked and shimmered as the Milky Way stretched across the great, dark arc of the midnight sky. The air had been dry and hot all day but as night came on it began to cool and by morning he was snuggling down into his blanket.


The terrain began to change halfway out. They were going through flat fields of small sage bushes, nothing else, just sage. The pungent smell was intoxicating. The small plants were all uniform and evenly spaced apart as far as one could see in any direction. It looked as if they had been planted they were so perfectly spaced. Then Yucca and prickly pear cactus began to appear among the sage. As they rode, the sage bushes got bigger and John was fascinated by the slender tendrils of the Ocotillo snaking towards the sky. Many different types of smaller cactus were tucked here and there. They were beginning to climb a little. The air was a little cooler and then they came over a rise to see the results of a spring shower. The table size sagebrush, awash in purple blooms rose above the knee high rippling grass.


Far out to the east on the horizon, dark, blue mountains drifted in and out of a river of low, flowing clouds. The trail led the riders to the west of a rocky ridge. The outcroppings grew larger until some of those formations towered 500 feet into the blue sky. Those huge towers looked like castles among boulders as big as a house. They were interspersed with cedar, scrub oak and some pines. To the west there were a few stunted, twisted trees along a ravine and they headed for them. There was a decent stream running through the deep shaded ravine and they and the horses were very glad to see it. The water supply in the canvas bags was just about gone. They dismounted and the horses and the men went straight for the stream. After a meager camp meal, the men sat under the stars while the hobbled horses grazed.


“How much farther Virgil?”


“Half a day at the most.”


“I never dreamed there could be country like this. How long you lived here?”


“Five years. My wife died and I had to get away. Fell in love with this country and stayed.”


“Sorry about your wife, any other family?”


“A sister in El Paso.”


The two men fell into silence as was their usual state. John guessed Virgil to be about 50, but looked older. He was grizzled and unkempt but pleasant enough and certainly did his share of the work. He was a good horse wrangler and John liked him. Virgil had little to say most of the time, but after several days on the trail he began to call John, Big John and managed to mumble one night as they were settling down to sleep, “You’re a pretty good hand to have around Big John.” Yeah, Big John liked him a lot.


They delivered the horses to the blacksmith and Big John stayed with Walter Goad and his family for a month. Walter had been surprised to see John but quickly put him to work helping out. John bought one of the horses he had delivered to the blacksmith and an old saddle and began riding the area. He rode out for days at a time exploring the land he thought so beautiful. He always ended up back at the high area where he first saw the sage in bloom and the tall grass. When asked, Walter said, “Yea, I know who owns that land.” Sure, he’d be glad to get the address for Big John. “It’s around here somewhere.”


Within six months, Big John had bought fourteen sections of land and filed to improve an additional 640 acres of adjoining land. He and Virgil and two young men from across the Rio Grand built a bunk house where the four of them lived as they built a house and barn. He had ordered the lumber and tools through Walter and had the loads trucked out from El Paso. His father had loaned him the equivalent of his share of the family’s Oklahoma ranch and wished him well. By the time Big John made the trip back to Oklahoma, seven years had passed. He could hardly believe it. He had paid off his father’s loan, dug wells and was running cattle. His trip back to Oklahoma was to get married.


Big John had met DeDe May Marshall, a tall slender handsome girl with big blue wide set eyes and long dark hair, her junior year and his senior year at the University of Oklahoma. They had spent some time together during that year before he graduated and went home to farm. She had written after that, eventually telling him about the teaching job she had acquired in Oklahoma City and they had corresponded for a while; but fourteen years later when she received a letter from John telling her about his ranch and asking her to marry him, well needless to say she was surprised. She asked him to come back and spend some time with her. He did and found her to still be a beautiful accomplished woman, warm and interesting. They married within the month. She had no idea what she was getting into.


As they drove up the dusty, hard packed dirt road from the trading post to her new home, DeDe was amazed at the beauty of the land, the land so different from Oklahoma. She was wide eyed at the sight of the open space all the way to the blue mountains to the east. Big John stopped the new green Dodge Traveling Car he had just bought in El Paso and she stepped out into the silence. The rocky terrain, all decorated with sage, yucca and cactus, was dry and blew about at the slightest breeze.

“Where is the house John?”


“We’re almost there.”


“Will there be trees?”


“Not at the house but there are a few down by the creek beyond the barn.”


She got back into the car that was filled to the roof with her belongings and they drove on towards their future.


***********

The ranch was big when DeDe first came and Big John had added eighteen sections since. Maria and DeDe May worked long hours. They had two big meals to prepare each day, three if not packing lunches. They hauled water from the well to cook with, to wash dishes, to water the garden and do laundry. They worked the garden in spring and summer and canned what they didn’t eat. They canned meat as well as preserving with salt when a cow was butchered. They fed the chickens, gathered eggs and cleaned the chicken house periodically. They built a fire outside under the big iron tub and scrubbed clothes and bed linins. They had a big house to try to keep clean and kept the unfinished wooden kitchen floors and the long dining table scrubbed. But they also knew how to have fun. They were known to saddle horses and ride like the wind to the roiling Rio Grande for a swim on really hot summer afternoons before starting a hot fire to cook dinner.


The morning of her eighth birthday, Lilly woke and lay still for a while listening to the cold wind rattle her window. The curtains fluttered as the cold air seeped in around the frame. There were no sounds or delicious smells coming from the kitchen. It must be really early, she thought. She lay warm and still under all the covers for quite a while wondering what time it was, wondering what her family had in store for her today to celebrate her birthday. She really wanted a new Stetson to replace her old ragged hand-me-down, one that fit and didn’t fall down to push her ears out and try to cover her eyes. But she would probably get new jeans since hers were a little thread bare. Soon she heard Big John go out the back door and then heard this light knock on her door. She was surprised and did not answer. Jonathan said softly, “Are you awake, it’s me.” She jumped up and opened the door. He stood there with a squirming puppy.


“Happy Birthday!”


“Ohoooo Jonathan. Who is this?” as she grabbed the puppy and put her face against its warm body.


“It’s Jack.”

“Where did you get him?”


“Manuel promised him to me when he was born and Big John and I picked him up yesterday when we went to the trading post. Virgil kept him in the bunk house.”


She took the puppy into the bed with her and pulled up the covers.


Jonathan turned to go and she said “Don’t go. Thank you so much. What a wonderful birthday present.”


“I asked Big John if it would be ok and he said yes. Are you coming down?”


“Yes, I’ll dress right now.”


When Lilly got downstairs no one was in sight. No breakfast, no DeDe, no one. She looked out towards the barn and saw tracks in the light frosting of dry snow that had fallen over night and was now blowing here and there in the wind. She headed for the barn wondering if something had happened to one of the horses. Her anxiety grew as she drew her jacket closer against the cold wind that buffeted her. She opened the small door cut into the big swinging barn doors and stepped into blackness. Inside the barn it was warmer from the warm bodies of the horses and dogs, and the familiar smell of the barn was comforting to her. She had barely closed the small door behind her when someone lit the kerosene lamp and everyone shouted “Happy Birthday.” Jonathan and Big John pushed the big barn doors open to let the sunshine flood the big open area in the middle of the barn. There stood DeDe holding a beautiful two year old Pinto.


The new Stetson didn’t come ‘til Christmas and in the meantime she and Jonathan had attended school each morning, helped one another doing homework and ridden some every day, no matter the weather. Of course it took time to rub down her pony after each ride and she fed him twice a day. This summer he would be allowed out into the horse pasture. Most of the ranch had no cross fences but no one wanted to chase horses around for an hour out on the range in order to saddle up and get to work.


Jonathan and Lilly were inseparable. Five year old Jonathan had claimed Lilly as his own when she was born. When DeDe and his mom were busy in the kitchen he sat with her and rocked her cradle. When she was a toddler he trailed right behind her to pick her up if she fell or keep her from getting into something unsafe. So when Jonathan began riding fences with Big John when he was 8, Lilly threw a three year old fit. “Why can’t I go,” she screamed with tears streaming down her face. At 12, Big John allowed Jonathan to ride the fences within a mile of the house alone and Lilly was right there with him. They did everything together.


Big John rode. He rode his big dependable gelding Red. He took tools and supplies and lunch and water and rode the far parimeter fences day after day in the shimmering heat on his 32,000 acres. He repaired any down or sagging fences. He rode to the wells he had dug by hand to be sure his cows had water, Red expertly picking his way through the yucca and cactus. As he rode, he took pleasure in watching red-tail hawks soaring under the pale blue sky looking for lunch or the big black buzzards circling and circling, riding a thermal as they rose higher and higher, never flapping a wing. He occasionally rode to the trading post and on some of those trips he continued across the Rio Grande to the Pueblo on the other side. He was ferried over on Jose’s flat bottomed boat when the waters were too high to ride across. Sometimes he and DeDe rode into the rugged red rocks on the east section of his property to enjoy the beauty of that wild country. They would see deer and the vast variety of birds. In the summer, the whole family, and that family was Big John, DeDe May, Lilly May, Jonathan, Maria and Virgil, rode to the river to picnic and to play in the water. When the river was flooding it was very dangerous but much of the time it was shallow and fun.


Jonathan and Lilly often rode with Big John when he went to the trading post, Lilly on her pinto and Jonathan on a black gelding. One trip on a sunny day when the river was low and slow the three of them rode the 20 miles then across the river into Mexico to Manuel’s. The small village of a dozen stucco houses along the river had been there for many years. Manuel was short and round and about five feet five, a perpetual smile on his face. He had a nice piece of land with a small stucco house nestled under a couple of big cottonwoods that shaded his wide front porch. The waist high stucco wall around it also enclosed his wife’s big garden. Manuel raised hogs and sold them locally and across the river. Big John visited to buy pork or to hire Jose and Juan, Manuel's sons, to do some work at the ranch. Today, after the time and money had been agreed upon for Jose and Juan to come to the ranch, they all had to go look at Manuel’s hogs. He was very proud of them. The pens and the smoke house were back behind the house closer to the low hills behind Manuel’s property. His horses snorted and ran around with their tails lashing back and forth as the three of them followed Manuel past the log fences of their enclosure. Manuel invited them to stay for dinner once back at the house, and although the smells coming from the house were very tempting, they thanked him but declined, explaining that they had made arrangements to spend the night with Walter and his wife and were invited to dinner. They packed the smoked hams and salt pork bacon they had bought and rode back across the river. Miriam, Walter’s wife, put the two hams in the root cellar to get them out of the heat and everyone went to bed early after dinner. It would be a long hot ride back to the ranch the next morning and Big John, Lilly and Jonathan wanted to get an early start. They left one of the hams for Walter and Miriam, heavily wrapped the other meats they had bought to keep them from the heat, made sure they had plenty of water and packed the lunch Miriam had made for them the night before. They were up before daybreak and had tried to be as quiet as possible while saddling the horses but both Walter and Miriam were up to wave them off as they rode out.


***********

Jose and Juan spent more and more time at the ranch, more than at the Pueblo, sometimes because they had been hired for a specific job and sometimes because they just didn’t go home. They shared the bunkhouse with Virgil and he liked having them there because they kept the place spotless. They scrubbed the floors and washed the bed clothes. They would wander into the kitchen when not busy and ask if they could help. They scrubbed the floors and counters there without being asked and helped with clean up after meals. Virgil had been invited to take one of the upstairs bedrooms in the big house but would have none of it. He and John had built the bunkhouse before they had started the barn right after Big John bought the property and that was his home.


One summer morning when Lilly was nine, after breakfast of biscuits, ham, red eye gravy, potatoes and eggs, Virgil with Jonathan, and Big John with Lilly rode out to ride fences. Jose and Juan had ridden fences in the far west section the day before and told Big John they would go home to the Pueblo at the end of the day. Big John and Lilly were riding the southwest fence line and around noon came to about ten yards of fence flat on the ground. The barbed wire had been cut and the fence posts shoved over. The surrounding area was well trampled. Several head of cattle had obviously walked across the opening.


Big John said “Lil’may, go find Virgil and Little Jon and have Virgil follow the trail I’m taking.” She took off at a gallop. When she found them, Virgil told her and Jonathan to go to the house and he took out to follow Big John. Lilly and Jonathan waited until Virgil was a quarter of a mile away and spurred their horses and rode hard after him. The dust and bits of cactus flew as they galloped at full speed bent low over their saddle horns, their horse’s tails flying straight out behind them. They overtook Virgil long before they got to the downed fence, passed him, with him waving his arm and shouting at them, and kept right on going at top speed until they caught Big John. The three of them finally came to the river and crossed, picking up the trail where the cattle had come out of the water. The obvious trail left by the cows ran just east of the Pueblo until it suddenly veered west, turned into the Pueblo right between houses and barns and straight into Manuel’s corral. About eight of Big John’s cows were milling around in the corral and Manuel was leaning on the fence, one foot up on the bottom rail. “Mi amigo, welcome.”

“Manuel?”

“You can thank us later mi amigo. Come have something cool to drink. Your horses are exhausted.”


Big John, Lilly and Jonathan dismounted, tied their horses and followed Manuel into the house. Rosita, Manuel’s wife, poured fresh cool water from the well for them and as soon as Jonathan finished his drink Big John asked him to go out and find Virgil and water the horses. Lilly stayed to hear why their cows were in Manuel’s corral. It seemed that Jose and Juan had ridden fence in the far west section all day yesterday and were headed for one of the small gates, Big John had put along the fence to the south. They were going home for the night when they came to the downed fence. They had followed the trail left by the small herd and just before coming to the river they came upon two men herding the eight cows. Jose yelled in Spanish “Don’t shoot Juan, you’ll hit a cow,” and Juan yelled in English “Don’t shoot Jose, you’ll hit a cow.” The two rustlers jerked around in their saddles to see their pursuers then spurred their horses and rode away to the south at top speed. The boys herded the cows across the river and into the corral. Since the boys did not carry guns they thought they had been quite clever and so did Lilly.


***********

Big John announced one morning the following summer as everyone was finishing their breakfast that he and DeDe May were going to El Paso. They had made few trips there in the past ten years. They had gone there to catch the train once to Oklahoma when Lilly was just a year old and again when she was four to bury Big John’s dad. DeDe’s mother had died two years later and she went back alone. Big John just could not leave; it was roundup and branding time. Lilly perked up and said “What are you going there for? It’ll take forever to ride there.”


“We need some things. We’ll take the wagon to the trading post and then hitch a ride on one of the trucks that delivers to Walter.”


“Can we go, Jonathan and me?”


“Nope, just your mother and me Lil’may. You and Little Jon have to stay here and run things.”


The ride to the trading post was a wonderful break for DeDe May. She relaxed and enjoyed the grandeur of the high cliffs running along across the river. The layers of cream and gray and touches of peach and rust spoke of the history of the land. She could just see the top of those behemoths by bending her head way back and shading her eyes. They rode close enough to the river for a while to see the water and be in the shade of the tall cottonwoods rustling in the breeze. Even though they had started early it was hot as they rode out onto the desert. The west Texas sun’s white glare brought DeDe’s straw hat out to shade her face. She loved the slender arms of the Ocotillo and the Century plants as big as a wash tub. Sage was her favorite. She liked to press the leaves in the palm of her hand and smell the pungent aroma. They pointed out the red tail hawks and road runners to one another as they rode. The tall cliffs angled away into Mexico as Big John and DeDe May continued to follow the river to the trading post.


When Big John and DeDe May returned, they had a wagon full of treasures from El Paso. There was fabric, jeans, belts and underwear. There was a beautiful blouse for Maria, new hats for Virgil, Jose and Juan. There was a pretty dress for Lilly who said “What am I going to do with that?” They had bought Jonathan a suit, new jeans and shirts and underwear. Everyone looked to Big John for explanation but none was forthcoming. There was gasoline, quite a bit of gasoline. “Are we getting a tractor?” asked Virgil. No explanation there either. Something was up.


Before Big John and DeDe had gone to El Paso they had asked Maria one night after dinner if they could talk to her. She was visibly shaken, what was wrong? Big John said, “Maria, Jonathan is 15 and we want to send him to school in El Paso.” Maria’s wide eyed stricken look prompted him to say, “I know, I know it will be hard to have him so far away for such a long time but he needs to have an education.” Maria just stared at him; she looked at DeDe for some explanation. “Why would you do this?”


“He’s our boy Maria. You are our family and he must have a good education,” Big John said.


Maria burst into tears and buried her face in her hands. DeDe rushed to her side, sat down beside her on the long bench beside the table in the kitchen where the two of them had fed so many people through the years and laid her arm along Maria’s shoulders. “It’s a good thing Maria. Go to bed, think about it and we will talk more tomorrow.”


The day before they were to drive to El Paso to enroll Jonathan in the local high school, a dejected ten year old Lilly slowly shuffled into the kitchen. She knew how early Maria, slicing salt cured bacon, had to get up to build the fire big enough to burn down to the red hot coals in the big old iron cook stove. While she placed the bacon in the big black iron skillet DeDe was sliding the biscuits she had just made into the oven. As DeDe turned to crack eggs into a bowl Lilly said “DeDe why can’t you just keep on teaching us? We don’t need more teaching than you can give us. Big John needs Jonathan to help with ranch work. You just keep on teaching us. Going to El Paso is stupid.”


DeDe May stopped cracking eggs and turned, giving that look that repeated what had been said before, I know you are sad but it’s done. Jonathan needs more than I can give him. Lilly knew there was no need arguing with DeDe. They just looked at one another for a while until DeDe suggested that Lilly go gather the eggs from the chicken house. “Breakfast will be ready by the time you get back.”


***********

During that school year, Jonathan hitched a ride when he could on holidays and came home for the summer and when he was home he and Lilly would saddle up and ride and ride. The first summer he was in school Lilly could forget that Jonathan would go back in the fall. She could even pretend that life was back to normal and would never change. Jonathan, very aware of what Big John was doing for him, expressed appreciation often and wrote about his plans to return to the ranch after graduation.


The Stock Market crash of 1929 didn’t affect Big John much. It happened late in the year and he had already sold that year’s cows. He had no investments; his money was tied up in cattle and land. The cash he had to work with was not in a bank, and really, they knew nothing about the crash for weeks. It took a while for news of any kind to get to them. 1930 was another story. Ordinarily, their part of west Texas never got much rain, but enough. That year there was none. No rain day after day. He had to buy hay, when he could find it, and he had Jonathan’s school expenses to finish his two year associate degree at the School of Mines in El Paso. He sold cattle for next to nothing in 1930 and 1931.


Jonathan had left home a boy and returned a handsome, strong man. He had his mother's golden skin and big brown eyes and his Caucasian father’s height and broad shoulders. That same year Lilly went away to attend high school in El Paso. They saw one another in passing when Lilly came home on holidays and summers but they had less and less in common as the years went by. Lilly had grown into a pretty girl, tall like her parents with thick auburn hair. Her blue eyes were piercing and she was a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. She had experienced the hard times of 30 and 31 but the good news of rain in 1932 led her to believe everything was back to normal. Those three years were spent making new friends and learning a lot about life outside of ranch life. She was looking forward to her senior year and absorbed in herself, she was totally unaware of what was happening on her beloved ranch. Even though prices were very low, Big John sold half his herd. He needed food for his family and feed for his livestock and he was determined to send Lilly to college. The Great Depression had come to the ranch.


Lilly came home that summer, excited to have time on the ranch. She hitched a ride with a trucker delivering to the trading post. She had ridden with Charlie before and she could usually talk him into taking her on to the ranch. The prospect of a tip, a pretty girl, a smile, he was glad to do it. During the drive he blithered on about how bad things were. He wondered how long the trading post could stay open. The blacksmith had closed down and left town as had the vet, and his family. He couldn’t believe how many people in the area had just moved away, the people who had sold animals for next to nothing and just walked away from property and home so that their children wouldn’t starve. Lilly was stunned. She had no idea. When they arrived at the ranch, Charlie pulled into the yard and Lilly stepped down. As Charlie backed up to turn around, Jonathan walked out of the barn. He had heard the truck and what he saw was Lilly with her auburn hair flying out in all directions. He thought her piercing blue eyes were going to go through him and time stood still. Her slender, tall body in shirt and jeans seemed in slow motion as he saw those long legs striding toward him. When Lilly got close to him she burst into tears. She began to shout at him and ran at him pounding his chest with her clenched fists. “Why didn’t you tell me what’s been going on here? How dare you treat me like a stranger and not say a word about the conditions here?” He grabbed her wrists to keep her from whacking him in the face. “What the ------?” he said and before he could say more, she wrenched free of him and ran toward the house.


Having heard the truck, both Big John and DeDe had come out onto the porch. They were alarmed to see their daughter run out of the barn obviously in distress. Big John stepped off the porch striding towards Lilly. “What’s wrong, what’s wrong Lil’may?”


“Why didn’t you tell me how bad things are here?”


“What are you talkin about?”


“I’m talking about the drought, the low prices for cattle, the ranchers who have moved away.”


“Lil’may we’r fine here. You don’t have to worry about us. So glad you decided to come home for the summer. What a nice surprise.”


Big John put his arm around Lilly’s shoulder, guiding her towards the house. Maria had come out onto the porch and took Lilly into a bear hug once she and Big John stepped onto the porch. They all went inside followed by Jonathan. “Now tell me what’s got you so steamed up?” her father said.


“Charlie was telling me how many families have moved away, how bad things are.”

Her mother said, “Sit down Lilly, stop that crying.”


Maria handed Lilly a glass of water and motioned for her to sit down at the kitchen table. Big John and Jonathan sat down and DeDe, leaning against the kitchen counter said, “Water is a problem Lilly, but the well in the yard still has good water and even though prices are way down, we sold half of the horses and most of the cattle, just not enough grass or water to keep them going,” her mother said, “The well up behind the house is still good so we have fenced the remaining stock into several acres up there. We have chickens and eggs, we’re in good shape. Better than some of our neighbors. How are things in town?”


“Some of my friends had to drop out of school because of the “hard times,” but it never occurred to me that those “hard times” would touch us here at the ranch. Where are you getting feed for horses and chickens - - - food for yourselves?”


DeDe continued, “We sold land Lilly, just a little land so we have some cash and we buy supplies from the trading post and across the river from Manuel. We hauled water from other wells for the garden this past summer and had good vegetables. We did a lot of canning. We’re gonna make it.”


At breakfast the next morning Jonathan suggested a ride and was pleased when Lilly agreed. He saddled her Pinto and his horse and waited for her. They rode in silence as the dry landscape extended ahead of them. “I’ve missed you Lilly, good to have you home. I know you’re looking forward to school this fall but it’s good to have you home now.”


“Jonathan, I am not going back to school. I’ll not have Big John selling land to send me to school.”


“Lilly, I wish we could do something. I hate to see us just sit here and go down.”


“Do what? What can we dooo?”


“I have suggested things to Big John and he just blows me off.”


“Like what?”


“The McCaines, you know the MacCaines, are raising sheep. They sell wool and lambs and they are surviving. The land that cannot provide for cattle will support a few sheep.”

“Is there money to buy sheep?”


“Well Big John was going to pay for your college and if you’re not going - - - -?”


Lilly’s eyes got big; she pulled up and turned in her saddle to face Jonathan. “Do you really think it could bring in enough for us just to hang on?”


“Why don’t we go talk to Mr. McCaines?”


“What about now?”


Jonathan reined around and took off at a gallop. Lilly was right behind him.


That night at dinner, Lilly asked Big John what his plans were for the future. He looked up at her and continuing to eat said “For you to graduate and get registered for college. That’s my plan.”


“I’m not going to college Dad.


He paused, fork in midair. He was not used to anyone contradicting him. “I think you will.”


“Big John, look at me. This ranch is in trouble. I will graduate next spring but I am not going to college.


Jonathan and I have an idea and would like for you to give us the courtesy of hearing us out.”


Big John looked up. He looked at DeDe for support. He got none. He looked over at Virgil who was bent over his plate shoveling in food. He realized everyone knew about the plan except him.


“OK, let’s hear it.”


Everyone was surprised that Big John became excited about the plan right away. As opposed as he was to sheep on his property he did like the figures Jonathan and Lilly had gotten from Mr. McCaines. He sure wasn’t one to sit around and his plan to just wait it out wasn’t working too well. His top priority was to get Lilly through college so when she promised to consider going once they had a little money coming in he agreed to try sheep. They bought two rams and 20 ewes. They put in cross fences in order to keep the sheep closer in. They weren’t interested in providing for the coyotes and the local mountain lion. They kept the flocks separate for breeding purposes and rotated grazing to protect the land. They were in the sheep business.


Lilly finished high school and the spring and summer of 1935 brought a little rain and the sheep thrived and multiplied. Jonathan drew up plans to pipe water from the well up on the east section where they had the cattle to the house to augment the water supply from the well in the yard. Big John had Virgil, who didn’t look a day older than when they first met over twenty years ago, ride to the trading post with him and take his horse back to the ranch while he caught a trucker going back to El Paso. Four days later he drove up to the ranch in a 1934 Chevrolet Pickup loaded with pipe.


***********

The sun beat down white hot. Lilly was riding fences and checking wells. Big John had not mentioned college in over a year. The entire family had been nose to the grindstone so to speak to grow the flocks of sheep and get them to Mr. McCaines for sheering, but now Jonathan, Big John and Virgil were building a sheering shed since through lambing and purchase they would have enough sheep for the shearer to come to them next spring. Jonathan had piped water into a big metal tub in the yard to the east of the house from the well in the upper section. It had a spigot to turn the flow on or off once the tub was full. DeDe and Maria now had plenty of water for the big garden they put in each spring. They had been canning all day so everyone was exhausted, from the heat as much as from the work.


Lilly could not sleep. It was too hot. She crept down the stairs, out the front door and over to the big new tub. She slipped her nightgown off and stepped into the water. It was still warm from the hot sun. Darn, she had hoped it would be cool, but when she stood there was enough breeze to cool her body. She slipped back into the water and stood again to feel the cool breeze. She stretched her arms up and turned a full circle, the moon shinning on her wet body. As she turned towards the house she saw Jonathan leaning against the corner of the house. She stepped out of the tub to grab her gown and he walked to her, put his arms around her wet waist and placed his full warm lips on her mouth. She was so surprised she just stood there with her eyes open. He raised his head and looked at her and kissed her again. She melted into him and closed her eyes. Oh my god, this is my brother. What am I doing? She gently pushed him away saying “Jonathan, what are you doing?”


“I - - I’m sorry - - it’s just that you are so beautiful. As he backed away he said “I think this is something I have wanted to do for a long time.”


“Don’t say that. That’s not right.” She exclaimed as she stepped into her nightgown.


“I think it feels very right.”


She turned and ran into the house. She got very little sleep that night. For days neither she nor he said one word about the night in the moonlight. They went about their daily activities as if nothing had happened.


Maria fainted one night while she and DeDe were doing dishes. DeDe was so alarmed she started to run out and call to someone then changed her mind and rushed back and wet a towel and began to bathe Maria’s face. She had hit the floor hard but was scrambling to stand immediately. “Oh, what was that?” she said.


“You fainted, here, sit down here. Did you feel the faint coming on?”


“No. I was standing one minute and getting up the next.”


“Have you been feeling poorly Maria?”


“Just tired. A little tired lately.”


Jose and Juan came into the kitchen about that time. They had just washed up outside and were headed for bed. DeDe asked them if they would finish up in the kitchen. She wanted to take Maria up to bed. The boys, well really grown men at 20 and 23, were immediately concerned about Maria. Juan helped Maria up the stairs as DeDe grabbed the wet towel and a glass of water and followed. Jose began to finish the clean up in the kitchen.


Over the following week, Maria fainted again and failed to show for breakfast one morning. When DeDe went upstairs to see what was wrong, she found Maria lying on the bed. She had been sick all night. The room was a mess. DeDe told Maria not to move and ran downstairs. Virgil and Big John were in the kitchen making coffee and began to tease DeDe about being such a sleepy head. “You’r late lady, where’s our lady bug Maria?”


“She’s ill John. We must get her to a doctor.”


“How sick?”


“I’m afraid ------ well we just have to get her to El Paso.”

“I’ll get Jonathan.”


Big John and Virgil got the truck ready. DeDe and Lilly got Maria cleaned up and dressed while Jonathan packed food and water and put blankets and pillows in the truck. Big John was going to drive and Jonathan would ride in the back but when they tried to sit Maria up in the cab they realized she couldn’t do it. There was no way she could sit up for the drive to El Paso. DeDe said.” Get a mattress and make a bed close to the cab to keep the wind and sun off her.” DeDe got into the bed of the truck with Maria while Lilly and Virgil and the boys fearfully watched them drive away.


When Lilly heard the truck drive into the yard the next morning she ran out of the barn calling to Virgil, “They’re here.” But it wasn’t them. It was Walter. As he walked to her she knew he had bad news. Walter had a telephone at the trading post. Maria had died before they got her to El Paso. The three of them walked back into the barn into the shade, out of the hot sun. Walter stayed for a while but had to get back to the trading post.


***********

One morning, early spring of 1938, Lilly woke slowly in her upstairs bedroom. That smell, that heavy, rich smell. That sound, that lovely sound. She had heard it so many times in her life but not for a long time. That sound of rain. - - - !!That sound of rain? She jumped out of bed, threw her window open and inhaled deeply. That smell of dry soil newly wet that made ones throat contract and mouth water. Rain! Rain was coming down hard, each big drop sending up puffs of the dry dirt. Rain hard enough to splash as the drops fell into the new tub in the yard; so many drops that the water in the tub was a frothing, splashing joy. She ran down the stairs and burst out the kitchen door to stand in the rain, head back, eyes closed, mouth open. Her wet gown clinging, she twirled and danced, arms reaching up until Big John grabbed her, lifted her off the ground in a big bear hug. Out came Jonathan with no shoes and only his jeans and joined in the dance. DeDe and Virgil slept through it all. Juan had breakfast started when they all trooped in wreathed in big smiles and dripping wet clothes.


After the rain, the desert exploded. Everything bloomed. The sage was covered in purple, each Century plant shot up a tall stalk to hold its foot long cluster of white blossoms. Cactus waxy pink and white and red blossoms burst open and little wild flowers of all colors were everywhere. Ocotillo dressed up in red blooms at the tip of each slender branch.


Jose had brought extra help for roundup and shearing and Juan and DeDe kept food and drink flowing three times a day for the eight to ten people working. But DeDe just couldn’t shake her sadness. Months after Maria’s death DeDe still missed her constant companion and best friend. She had lost interest in her big beloved kitchen, the garden, everything. She could not shake her grief so as soon as the skinny sheared sheep were put back to pasture, the wool packed up and the sheep that had been sold trucked away, Big John told her to pack her bag, “I’m taking you to see the Pacific Ocean.”


While they were gone, Juan took over the kitchen. Jose had decided to find his “fortune” in El Paso, over his father’s objections. Manuel was very worried about his son’s safety there. Virgil, as usual, worked from sunup to sunset, riding fences, fixing windmills and herding sheep or cattle. They couldn’t get him to take a little time to relax and just hang around once in a while, and truth be known the work he did was invaluable. It was all Lilly and Jonathan could do to keep up, with Big John and Jose gone. For the next few days they all worked long hot hours taking care of the ranch and animals. Juan stayed with Virgil in the bunkhouse when he wasn’t in the kitchen and Jonathan had taken to sleeping on a mattress on the front porch to escape the heat of the upstairs bedrooms.


One night Lilly, utterly exhausted, came down the stairs and out onto the porch. She had just reached her limit. The heat and work load for days on end had taken their toll. She stood over Jonathan sobbing. He took her hand and pulled her down beside him, smoothing her wet hair back from her face. He went into the kitchen for a wet cloth to wash her face and wrists talking to her all the while, calming her. He ran the wet cloth over her arms and throat. He stroked the cooled cloth across her thighs. She sat up and he lifted the gown over her head and took her in his arms. The hot summer of 1938 passed.

***********

Big John and DeDe returned from their trip refreshed. They smiled more and exchanged looks often. DeDe couldn’t stop talking about the beaches and the cool breezes. Juan had taken on the chickens and laundry while she was away and just continued when she returned. He had also cared for the garden with Lilly’s help while DeDe was away and was glad to hand that back to her. She soon had it in great shape and began to get jars and pans ready for canning.


Lilly woke one morning in her room to a cool breeze blowing the curtains at her window. The relief from heat felt so good. She dressed and hurried downstairs to find Big John, DeDe, Virgil and Jonathan just standing in the kitchen on one side of the table looking across the room at something beyond her vision. As she cleared the stairs and could see the full kitchen she saw a very anxious looking Juan holding the hand of a very pregnant young woman. No one spoke. Lilly assumed everyone had just entered the kitchen and were standing there stunned.

“Juan, will you introduce us?” she asked.


“Mi esposa Juanita.”


Juanita looked terrified. Juan looked hopeful. He knew he was taking a big risk with this surprise. Obviously, the couple had no idea how the Hersh family would react. As Big John began to welcome Juanita, Juan broke in, “She does not speak English Big John.”


DeDe immediately turned to Juanita and began to introduce her, in Spanish, to everyone around the table and Juanita nodded and smiled at each one.


“OK lets all sit down to breakfast,” said Big John.


With one quick word to Juanita, Juan finished up eggs and she put hot biscuits, sausage, and gravy on the table. DeDe told Juanita in Spanish to sit down at the table and Virgil poured coffee.

Early September, Lilly asked her parents if she could have a word. Big John said “You bet!!” assuming she was ready to start her college education. Lilly and Jonathan followed them into the sitting room and as Big John turned to face them, all smiles, he said, “Lil’may, You know I have been waiting for this day”


“Probably not,” she replied. “Jonathan and I are getting married.”


The looks on her parent’s faces were indescribable. They simply could not grasp what Lilly had said, it was as if she were speaking Greek or Italian.


Jonathan spoke up and said “Big John, you must understand. I love Lilly and we want to marry and have a family,”


“Lilly, this man is like your brother. You can’t mistake that love, for romantic love,” Big John replied, ignoring Jonathan.


“Dad, you’re right, we were close, like brother and sister when we were kids, but we are no longer children,” Lilly said.


“Well when did you two – uh – begin tu – uh – notice one another in – in – that way?” Big John asked.


DeDe first, then Big John began to see their daughter as a grown woman, not their little girl anymore. They loved Jonathan as their own and slowly, though still a little doubtful that this was a good thing, began to make plans for Lilly and Jonathan to go to El Paso to get married.


Enjoying the cool fall air, DeDe came into the kitchen one morning to find Juanita sitting at the table, head in hands, sobbing. Juan was hovering trying to comfort her while still getting things out to cook breakfast. “What on earth is the matter Juanita?” DeDe asked in Spanish. Juanita wanted to go home to have her baby and Juan was trying to talk her out of it. “Of course you can take her home Juan,” DeDe said, “Take the wagon.” During breakfast DeDe told Big John that Juan was taking Juanita home.

“She’s in no condition to ride a horse DeDe May,” he said to his wife, looking at her as if she had lost her mind.


“Well of course not, they’ll just take the wagon.”


“I gotta have that wagon to haul wire and poles to repair that old fence on the lower pasture before winter. I’m sorry but I just can’t spare it right now.”


“I’ll take them Big John. I can have the wagon back by the next morning. Jonathan said.


“We’ll, --- OK, you start out early in the morning. Virgil and I’ll get everything ready while you’re gone and we can start the fence day after tomorrow.”


When Jonathan, pushing the horses pretty hard the next morning, reached the usual river crossing close to the trading post, he was surprised to see the river so full and rushing. It was always red with silt, but on that day it was a raging, muddy roar. It evidently had rained heavily up stream. Jonathan and Juan had seen it flood many times and thought it couldn’t possibly be very deep here where it was usually shallow with low banks and a sandy beach so decided to make the crossing. The horses were not eager to get into that roiling water and danced around a bit, but Jonathan snapped the reins and yelled and encouraged them on until they eased in. The horses were immediately up to their bellies. They could not keep their footing. The current began to sweep them down stream as one screamed and they struggled and fought to stand. The wagon twisted and tipped over as the horses floundered. No one called out as they were thrown into the ragging current. Each fought to keep their heads above the water as it sucked them under. One head then another would bob up as they, and the horses tethered to the heavy wagon, were swept away.


Juanita and Juan were found the next day on a small sandbar, alive. Juanita lost her baby. One of the horses had somehow survived and stood on the bank miles downstream with traces dangling. Jonathan’s body was not recovered until the raging waters receded and the river ran smooth and calm again.


***********

Three year old Jonathan Michael Hersh, whom Big John called Max, climbed onto the bench alongside the big kitchen table where his Gramma DeDe had put his scrambled eggs. He was doing his best to persuade his mother that he should go with her and Grampa John to the trading post this morning. Grampa John said, “Remember, when you get that tall,” and he pointed to a mark on the door facing, “I’ll get you a pony and you can ride to the trading post with me.” Since Lilly and Big John were riding fence along the south border of the ranch and since they would be closer to the trading post than to the house at the end of the day, they were going to spend the night with Walter and his wife. Virgil had taken the two hired hands before daybreak out to the far northwest section to check on the cattle there.


Walter had added a couple of small tables to the trading post and begun charging for meals. It seemed more and more people were passing through these days. They had always had local ranchers and people from the Pueblo come through and they had fed them and even put them up for the night when necessary. Sometimes it was because of weather or high water or maybe it was just too late for them to head home, but the traffic had increased to the point they felt they needed to charge for meals. Walter and Marian sat down to dinner with Lilly and Big John. Of course they wanted to know all about Max. They spoke again of the regret that Johnathan had not lived to see his son. They talked about the post’s business, how it was changing, the new people coming through. “Who is it coming out here, people from El Paso?” Big John asked.


Walter hesitated, looking down at his plate. He looked up at Big John and said “Some of them are people wanting to buy land.”


“Well, I guess we’re going to have new neighbors.”


“Not exactly, they want your land.”


“What?”


“These men want all of this land. They want to turn everybody out and make this area a protected park, no ranches.”


“Big John let out a big laugh. “Well good luck with that.”


“They have the government’s backing.”


“What? You mean you think these people are serious?”


“They seem to have the money and the authority.”


With a wave of his hand, Big John dismissed that idea and said, “Can’t say as I think they have much of a chance of running the remaining ranchers in this area off.”


They changed the subject, finished dinner and Lilly and Big John went up to bed while Walter and Marian cleaned up, turned out the lights and locked the doors.


***********

Over the past year the cattle herd had multiplied and the two flocks of sheep had thrived. Lambs, calves, mending fences, repairing wells, shearing, selling, buying, maintenance - - -, it was all Big John, Virgil, Lilly and the two hired hands could do to keep up. DeDe tended her garden, cooked, canned, cooked, did laundry and cooked. By May it was already very warm every day. At 1:00, May the 15th the two men they had been expecting drove into the yard. Big John and DeDe May and Lilly were still at the kitchen table finishing their lunch so Big John went out to greet them. They introduced themselves and asked if they could talk to him about his land.

“No need for us to talk, my land is not for sale.”


“Mr. Hersh, it is imperative that you understand that many of your neighbors have already sold. We have offered top dollar, it is to your advantage to sell now rather than later.”


“Not interested. Sorry you had the long drive out here but we are just not for sale.”


“A later offer might not be so generous.”


“Won’t matter, since I won’t be selling at any price.”


“May we leave you with a packet sir? It explains our goals. It explains this project, this project that is to save this area in its native splendor for perpetuity.”


“I will be happy to read your packet. Can we get you something to drink before you go?”


By the following morning the family, having read the packet, had a very vivid picture of the influence and power these men had. They would be back.


The family simply could not imagine life without the ranch and went about their daily tasks as usual for weeks. No one mentioned the possibility of having to sell. Everyone was worried and there were sleepless nights but they didn’t let on. All were bright and chipper each day living their regular lives of working together, laughing at the antics of the new crop of lambs, dying eggs for Easter, having dinner together talking about their day. They reminisced about the day Virgil and Francisco, one of the hired hands, had ridden six or eight miles of fence when Francisco said he was dismounting for a personal matter.


“A little ground squirrel darted across in front of my horse and she jumped, throwing me right into a barrel cactus. Virgil pulled daggers out of my rump for half an hour.”


It was funny in the telling if not at the time. Everyone had tales and memories of the years on the ranch. How would they live any other kind of life? But once again, as 1942 unfolded, there was no rain. Hot dry winds swept across the land and by the end of the year many more of the ranchers in the area had sold out.


Big John got good money for his stock and had everything sold by November, 1942. Cattle and sheep shipped out on huge trucks after a weeklong roundup. Walter bought the goats and chickens. He still had ample business from across the Rio Grande and planned to stay. Big John drove to El Paso and traded the pick up for a 1941 Cadillac Special. He had found a buyer for his horses and tack and set a date to deliver at the trading post. While packing their belongings, the rain came. It rained all day.

One early morning soon after, Lilly, DeDe May and Big John mounted up to ride. They took turns riding with Max sitting comfortably in front of them. They rode east through table size sage covered in purple blooms. The familiar smell of it wafted up as the horses walked through. They rode to the red rocks and boulders leading up to the huge red rock castles in the east and through the scrub oak, stunted pines and cedar trees among the crevices of the formations. As they approached they saw a black bear with her little cub running away into the brush. Max was so excited. He wanted to “chase that bear.” They dismounted to let him run around for a while in the cool of the area. They rode towards the spectacular, familiar rise of the cliff on the other side of the Rio Grande. The dry land had sprouted little tiny wild flowers scattered about and each Yucca had bloomed. Some of the huge century plants with their fat, gray-green leaves and sharp points had sent up tall, branched stalks, laden with saucer shaped blossoms, some twenty feet tall. They rode along the river under the cool of the cottonwood trees until they found the perfect place to picnic and wade in the water. As they rode towards home they rode past waist high Prickly Pear cactus crowned with buds about to burst open. Scrubby Mesquite ran along a washed out aurora and a cool breeze whipped up dust and blew the scent of the prairie across the little party riding under flaming orange clouds as the sun was setting. The last night at “home” was a sleepless one.


The moving van pulled out of the yard. Virgil had left for the trading post early that morning with the string of horses. He would go to El Paso to live with his sister after delivering them. That parting had been the hardest for Big John. Those two had shared so much through the years. Lilly put Max in the back seat of the Cadillac and climbed in with him as DeDe May lowered herself into the front. Big John packed final belongings into the trunk of the car, got behind the wheel and they drove away. No one looked back.

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