Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mustang Prairie Days

 Shortly before my fifth birthday, my father was killed in an automobile accident and my mother and I moved in with my grandparents. They were both getting on up in years and were beginning to need a lot of assistance. My grandfather operated a small neighborhood grocery store and my mother worked for him. As his health deteriorated, she had to completely take over the operation, which was a twelve hours a day, six days a week job.
My parents' best friends were John and Dawn Rials. They took many vacations together and spent lots of time with each other. The Rials had no children and they treated me as if I were their own. After my father died they became my second parents. My mother had to work long hours and my grandparents couldn't always keep up with me. John was the manager and part owner of the Mustang Prairie Ranch near Crockett, and he began to take me with him to the farm when I was a very small boy. I must have been in the way and a pain to have around, but he never seemed to mind.
Mustang Prairie was around fifteen thousand acres at the time. There were several hundred head of cattle, lots of forest land and five thousand acres of cotton. John was busy keeping things running with lots of projects going on at any given time, yet he took the time to watch after me.
In the late fifties a lot of the modern day agriculture chemicals were not in widespread use, and most had yet to be developed. Today's cotton fields are sprayed to take care of weeds, but when I was a small boy the job was done by workers in the field chopping them by hand. An operation the size of Mustang Prairie would have two hundred or more for several weeks each summer. It was a big job in itself to keep everyone in the right field and especially on the right row. During this time of the year John was busy from daylight until dark. Dawn would fix a picnic basket and drive the fifteen miles from town to the fields and eat lunch with him. When he had several hundred workers hoeing weeds, he would ride his horse so he could move along the end of the field and direct workers where he needed them. As a five-year-old boy I wanted to ride with him in the worst way, but he was too busy and I was too small.
One hot day I was staying with Dawn. She was taking John his lunch and I was excited -- I always loved to be around when John was riding the horse. After lunch I begged John to take me for a ride, and for the first time he said okay. I was thrilled! Dawn held me up to John and he placed me on the saddle in front of him.
I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt due to the intense East Texas heat and humidity. I had a death grip on the saddle horn and was having a blast. The horse was a big one and so was the saddle, so there was nothing holding me on except my grip. John started the horse off at a slow walk, and of course I started to whine because I wanted to go fast like they did on television. To shut me up he increased the pace to a trot, which had my butt bouncing high up in the air with each jolt. After a minute of this, physics began to have an impact in my little body. In a split second my bowls let go. I began to mess in my pants as I approached the top of my bounce, so on impact it spewed in every direction. My shorts directed it down each side of John's best saddle as well as his trousers. It kept coming and I kept bouncing. It took John a few seconds to see what was happening. I'm sure his first thought was he had ridden through an old cesspool. He hooked his arm under mine and swung me off to the side to keep me from doing any additional damage to his saddle. Dawn had to have wondered what had happened when John rode up with me hanging by his knee and crap all over everything. I'm sure he wanted to whip my ass, but he knew I was five years old and full of crap, so what could he do? It was several years before he let me get on the horse again.
By the time I was eight I could help out once in awhile in a small way. During the few weeks of cold weather each winter we would feed the cattle hay and range cubes. John would lower the tailgate on the truck and drive slowly across the field, and the cattle would trail along behind the truck as I dumped the feed on the ground. I was still too small to do anything productive, but I could ask a million stupid questions until John would ask if I wanted to ride in the back. I always did.
Most of the cattle pastures were accessed through gaps. These were crude gates made with strands of barded wire and small fence posts. I was much too small to open a gap, so I would sit in the truck while John got out, opened the gap, then drove the truck through. He would have to walk back and close the gap before we continued on. This process was repeated over and over when we were working with the cattle.
One cold Saturday morning in the dead of winter John took me with him to feed the cattle. It had rained heavily the day before, and the roads on the ranch were very muddy. At our first stop the gap was at the bottom of a small slope, and the ground below and on each side of the gap was standing in water. John knew he would have to drive through the open gap fairly fast to keep from getting stuck in the mud. He parked the truck at the top of the slope and set the emergency brake. He left the motor running while he walked down the hill to open the gap. I was sitting in the seat enjoying the heater and the radio.
As I mentioned before, John and Dawn had no children of their own. John apparently didn't understand that an eight year old tends to take what people say literally. He unhinged the gap and pulled it open. He then turned toward the truck and yelled "Okay boy, you can drive it on through!"
I can't tell you how excited I was! I'm sure I peed on myself just a little bit. In a flash I was across the seat and behind the wheel. Being an eight year old I couldn't see over the dash, but I was determined. John expected me to give him a stupid stare, but never to actually try to drive the truck. I slid off the seat and planted both feet on the gas pedal and pushed with all my weight. The motor began to roar and I continued to push. John was yelling for me to stop and was running toward the truck through the mud. I couldn't see or hear him. He was halfway there when the engine threw a rod and began to make all kinds of clanking noises. Smoke began to pour from under the hood and I kept my foot firmly on the accelerator. He had to open the door and pull me off the pedal. We had to walk a mile up to the shop to get a couple of mechanics to tow the truck in for repair. We went home in another pickup while they began rebuilding the engine of the truck I had just "driven."
When John dropped me off at the grocery store at the end of the day my mother asked him if something was wrong with his pickup. He told her the story and she glared at me and was about to give me a scolding. John just held up his hand to stop her and said, "He was only doing what I asked him to do."
A few years went by and as I grew up I was able to be a little bit more help. Each summer when John rode the horse while the workers chopped weeds in the cotton fields, I would ask if I could ride with him. It had taken a couple of years to get the stains and the smell out of his saddle from the last time I had ridden. When I was big enough to ride on my own he finally agreed. He figured I would only be crapping on myself this time and he gave me an old saddle.
I was excited to finally be on a horse by myself. I was only going to be there until noon, then I would ride home with Dawn after she brought John his lunch. I had ridden a few horses, but I wasn't very comfortable on one. John didn't expect me to do anything but ride around and stay out of the way and hopefully not mess on myself. I was twelve by then and hadn't messed on myself in several months.
I climbed into the saddle and tried to look like I knew what I was doing. The workers were gathering around as John began to tell them the plan for the day. There were people standing all around my horse, when all of a sudden he began to walk backward. I knew how to make a horse stop, go, and turn left or right, but not how to take him out of reverse. I jerked my head around to make sure he wasn't about to step on anyone.
There was a short, stocky man standing directly behind the horse. I yelled to warn him as the horse approached. He turned his face toward the horse just as it stopped. The man had bangs that hung over his eyes like a sheep dog, and he was at eye level with the horse's butt. The horse stopped six inches from the man's face, raised his tail and blasted a tremendous fart directly at him. The force of the fart was such that it parted the man's bangs as if a fan had suddenly been turned on in his face. The man just stood there and stared directly into the horse's ass and never moved an inch. I was laughing so hard I almost soiled another saddle. I gave the horse a short kick and moved off to the side of the crowd. I dismounted and laughed until I cried.
After lunch, one of the ranch hands rode my horse back to the pasture and I was about to ride back to town with Dawn. John was preparing to ride his horse to another field and see if it needed any attention. The workers had finished their lunch and were back at work. John also needed to move his truck to the new field, so I asked him if I could ride the horse while he drove. In spite of my past history he said yes. I climbed into the saddle and he drove slowly down the dusty dirt road.
I was riding alongside the pickup when John slowed up to speak to one of the workers on the side of the road. As usual I wasn't paying much attention and I bumped the side of the pickup. The edge of the truck bed caught the horse in the flank, which startled him and caused him to jerk his head and jump straight up in the air. The reins flew out of my hands and I grabbed the saddle horn. The horse continued to buck and I was freaking out. John jumped from the pickup and ran for the horse. He didn't stop the pickup or take it out of gear, so while he was chasing the horse the pickup was making it's way across the field and scattering workers as it went. Someone finally chased it down while John grabbed the reins and settled the horse down. I climbed down off the horse and headed for the car. I had my fill of riding the horses on Mustang Prairie.
Later that summer it was time to round up the cattle to a central area to vaccinate and tag them. Because of the large number of cattle involved, it was necessary to hire several cowboys to help with the roundup. Most of the cattle were "horn trained." When John honked the horn of the pickup and drove along slowly, the cattle would follow for miles. They knew they would get some range cubes as soon as the pickup stopped. We were able to get the majority of the herd to the corral in this manner. The cowboys kept the stragglers moving along and kept the young calves from wandering off on their own. Obviously this didn't leave much for me to do.
The main corral was on top of a long hill. There was a large gate at the bottom of the hill, and it was my job to close it after the herd passed through. I really wanted to be riding a horse behind the cattle, but everyone thought that was a bad idea. As the last few calves passed through I swung the gate shut and locked it. I started walking up the hill toward the corral.
Most of the cattle were in the corral by the time I started up the hill. I was a little pissed off that I hadn't been given a role in the actual roundup. I picked up a large stick and began knocking the tops off the tall weeds as I walked. A small calf was well behind the rest of the group and came to a stop a few yards in front of me. The cowboys hadn't noticed it, or just didn't want to bother. I walked up behind the calf and whacked it hard across the hip with the stick. I was determined to drive one cow to the corral, even if it was a little one.
I was smiling when the stick broke across the calf's rear end with a "whack!" I can still see the hind leg flying through the air as if it were in slow motion. It caught me squarely in the balls and dropped me like a rock! I fell flat on my face and moved quickly into the fetal position. A minute later I caught my breath enough to cry, but there was nobody around to appreciate my misery. After about fifteen minutes I got to my feet and limped up the hill. That was the end of my one and only great cattle drive.
The fall of that year was memorable because I hunted dove for the first time with a 12 gauge shotgun. Up until that time I had a small .410, which is pretty lightweight in the world of bird hunting weapons. My uncle had an old single shot 12 gauge he no longer used and asked me if I wanted it? I felt like a stud walking into the field with such a powerful instrument of death and fowl destruction. I had never fired a 12 gauge shotgun before, so I wasn’t remotely prepared for the experience. The first time I jumped a dove in the maize field I jerked the gun to my shoulder and fired a blast right at it. My aim was true and the dove was blown to pieces before my eyes. Unfortunately I didn’t get to enjoy the thrill of the kill. My shoulder felt like it was out of socket and a foot behind the rest of my body. It would have been fine with me if I didn’t see another dove all day. Unfortunately I was with several friends, so I was duty bound to show my toughness. I cried that night as I took off my shirt, but I never told anyone. My shoulder was black and blue and stayed that way for two weeks.
I started doing real work on Mustang Prairie during the summer I was sixteen. I could drive a pickup or tractor without running over any of the workers. My favorite job only lasted two days, but it was something none of my friends had done. The job was being flagman for the crop duster while it was spraying the cotton for boll weevils. The main requirements for the job were to run fast enough to get the hell out of the way as the airplane bore down on you, and to be too stupid to realize it was dangerous.
I would stand in the field, positioned so the wind would blow the poison in the opposite direction I would be running. The rows of cotton were long and the plane was visible from quite a distance. I would stand and wave a large white flag over my head until the plane lined up on my position. At that point I would run into the wind, counting my steps as I went. I would quickly step off the distance twice the wingspan of the plane, and if all went well I was out of the way by the time it passed near me. The pilot would fly about twenty feet over the cotton, but as I stood in the field it looked to be three feet above the ground at most.
The first time the plane lined up on me and the flag, I started a slow stroll to the side and counted my steps. The airplane, moving at over 100 miles per hour, arrived at my location a lot faster than I expected. The steady breeze in my face kept me from getting a dose of poison on my head. From then on I started moving long before the plane got there. After a couple of passes I had the distance and my pace calculated, so at that point a monkey could have done the job.
It took about half an hour for the plane to empty the tanks. It took at least twenty minutes for the pilot to fly to his airstrip in Austonio and take on another load of poison. Trees were few and far between in the cotton patch, so I stood in the hot sun wearing my pith helmet and sun glasses waiting for the plane to return.
At about 4 p.m. of the first day, I was getting pretty tired and I was burning up. Worse yet, I needed to take a dump in the worst way. The plane was on the way to Austonio for the final load of the day, and I was looking for some cover. I saw a couple of small scrub oaks several hundred yards away and I headed for them in a dead run. After I finished with my business it struck me I had no toilet paper. I had always heard about people using leaves when they had to wipe in the woods, but there were no suitable ones to be found.
Suddenly, I had a brilliant idea! The large flag was on the ground beside me. I took my pocket knife and cut a one foot square off the end and put it to necessary use. I discarded the scrap of cloth and ran back to my position and waited for the plane to return. John picked me up an hour later. His first question was, "What in the hell happened to the flag?"
I just gave him a blank stare and asked "What flag?"
My last adventure at Mustang Prairie occurred in December of 1970 when I was a senior in high school. I was deer hunting with Eugene May and Charlie Jackson. We had spent the night in a large unoccupied house on the ranch. It had rained all night long and it was very cold. We built a large fire in the fireplace and kept it going all night long. By morning I couldn't care less about going hunting, but Charlie and Eugene were determined.
We were hunting in an area of approximately 700 acres. During deer season John kept a few cattle in the area, assuming we could tell the difference and not mistake one for a deer. He was giving us a lot of credit.
Charlie and I had hunted there many times, but Eugene had never been with us. It was impossible to give directions to the deer stand he was to use, so I decided to walk with him and point it out. Charlie went off in the opposite direction.
It was pouring rain by the time we reached the deer stand. Eugene climbed the tree and got settled. At that point all I wanted to do was get back to the house and sit in front of the fire to warm up and dry off. The ground was soaked and muddy and each step felt like there were five pound weights on each foot. Thirty minutes later I was a quarter mile from the house and too tired to take another step. My rifle felt like it weighed fifty pounds and my arms were aching. I had to sit down and rest for a few minutes.
I was standing at the base of a small earthen dam on a two acre-stock pond. The dam rose to a height of about ten feet behind me. The side of the dam was pure mud after a week of steady rain. I sat down on a stump to catch my breath and rest my sore muscles before hiking the last stretch to the house.
It was foggy that morning and there was a thick cloud over the water. As I sat and gazed over the water I noticed a large cow standing in the pond no more than twenty feet away. As my eyes adjusted to the fog it became apparent the cow was dead. She had walked into the pond until the water was up to her stomach. He legs became stuck in the mud and she died there in a standing position. Her head was turned to one side and her stomach was extremely bloated. I observed her for a few minutes when a great idea came to me. I'd always wanted to shoot a cow. Besides, Charlie and Eugene would think I finally bagged a deer.
My rifle was a military style 303 British Enfield, which is basically a small cannon. I put a bullet in the chamber and took aim squarely at the bloated side of the cow. I squeezed the trigger and the kick of the rifle almost knocked me off the stump. My ears rang for a few seconds, then things were back to the quiet calm of the cold and foggy morning. As I sat there looking at the hole in the side of the cow I heard something that seemed out of place. It was a hissing sound, but I couldn't identify it. About five seconds later I knew what it was. The gas from the stomach of the bloated cow had found a release. It was blasting through the bullet hole under high pressure and heading my direction. The smell hit me in the face and I was instantly sick! It was the worst smell I'd ever encountered. I turned and tried to run up the muddy bank of the dam directly behind me. My hands and feet were sinking in the mire and my gun was turned into a heavy stick of goo. I gagged and wretched as I climbed onward and upward. When I reached to top I fell on my back and gulped in the fresh air. When my head cleared I walked the final leg to the house and sat in front of the fire until the other mighty hunters returned.
A few months later John Rials passed away and my Mustang Prairie days had come to an end. It had been a great place to spend a large part of my childhood.

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