Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Nicest Ranch You Will Never See

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Billy the Kid and the controversy concerning whether he was left- or right-handed.  Sure enough, my email on the subject was pretty evenly divided on both sides of the controversy.   While I have no reason to stir up that hornets nest again, I do have a related topic to discuss.

In November of 1880, Pat Garrett was appointed sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico.  One of his first jobs was to track down his erstwhile friend, Henry McCarty--alias Billy the Kid--for his murderous role in the famed Lincoln County War.  In earlier days, Pat and Billy had been friends who had frequented the gaming tables in saloons scattered around the south half of the state.  Standing several inches over six feet, Pat was a tall man, and was known as “Big Casino,” while the diminutive Billy was known as “Little Casino.”

Now, Sheriff Garrett gathered a posse and began to chase Billys gang.  Within months, the posse had killed two members of the gang and had captured Billy and the rest.  Though Billy was convicted, he managed to kill two guards and escape from the jail.  In less than three months, Garrett was able to track down and kill The Kid in the town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico.  Like everything else involving Billy, there are differing versions as to how the fight took place.

One thing is certain: Pat Garrett became famous as a lawman and a gunman.  And the sheriff exploited his fame:  he ran for several political offices (usually unsuccessfully), he produced a book about Billy (which was actually ghostwritten by Ash Upson), and he became a rancher.   President Theodore Roosevelt gave him the job of Customs Agent.  For a while, Garrett was even a captain in the Texas Rangers.  Eventually, he returned to his quarter horse ranch on the eastern slopes of the San Andres Mountains. 

Garrett was a difficult man to get along with, and eventually he got into a long feud with Wayne Brazel, a tenant who had leased some grazing land from Garrett.  Garrett, not realizing the rancher intended to raise goats on the land, was furious.  In 1908, while Garrett was riding a buckboard into Las Cruces, Brazel rode up and the two men began to quarrel.  According to the goat rancher, Garrett allegedly bent over to reach for a shotgun but Brazel  drew and fired first, killing the lawman.

Pardon the interruption, but have you noticed that nearly every fact connected to the Wild West is about as firm as fresh cowpie on a hot summer day?  We don't know hardly anything for sure.  There is a great story--probably apocryphal, of course--about an old frontier doctor in the wild, rip-roaring town of El Paso, who best came to grips with this problem.

In 1895, the old doc was called out one night to examine the body of John Wesley Hardin, who was a notorious badman.  When he was poor, he crossed the border into New Mexico territory, where he was an assassin for hire.  At home in El Paso, he was even worse--he was a lawyer!

There is no doubt about it--Hardin was a bad man.  He once (and I hope you understand that I am not at all certain about this story inside a story inside the story about Garrett) shot a man in an adjoining hotel room just because he snored too loudly.  Hardin was mean enough to have a fight with a rattler and give the snake the first bite.

Well, Hardin and John Selman, the local deputy, had gotten into an argument, and Hardin had promised to kill the deputy when next he saw him.  Now, if Hardin had promised to kill you, one more clean white shirt would probably do for you.  Selman--wisely--decided to strike first.

Searching the various bars, gambling halls, and assorted playgrounds that made up the seedier side of El Paso, Selman looked into the Acme Saloon and saw Hardin standing at the bar, playing poker dice with a local.

Everyone was certain that Selman had shot Hardin from the doorway, but few agreed on the details.  Selman claimed that he had yelled, "Hardin!" and as the famed shootist turned to face the deputy, he had moved to draw his gun, forcing Selman to shoot Hardin.

Hardin's friends however, claimed that Selman had not yelled a warning, but had just shot the gunfighter in the back.  The argument was heated, violence was eminent, and so the old doctor was called in to provide the official version of how the famed badman had died.  Had Hardin been shot in the front or in the back?  This was "CSI", Wild West style.

Well, this put the physician in quite a dilemma.  No matter how he ruled, half the town was going to be angry with him.  The doctor's official testimony is a masterpiece of diplomacy:

"If he was shot in the front, it was damn fine shooting.  And if he was shot in the back, it was damn fine judgment."

And so it is with the various versions of what "really" happened in the Old West.  Pick the version you like the best, and ride that horse to the finish line, without looking over your shoulder for stray facts.  Now, back to Pat Garrett.

Garrett's children continued to live in New Mexico, with the last of them passing away just a little over twenty years ago.  The ranch, however, did not stay with the family.  During World War II, 3,200 square miles of desert land east of Las Cruces and north of El Paso suddenly found other military uses, such as for artillery ranges, bomber training areas, missile ranges, and, eventually, as an atomic proving ground.

Some of that land had belonged to ranchers, to miners, and, even to a few homesteaders.  The government used the eminent domain law and bought the land from the previous owners, fenced the whole area off, and installed the kind of armed patrols and electronic security that--for some reason--the federal government today says is impossible to duplicate on the Mexican border just a few miles to the south. 

The government doesn't lie about what's out there, but it doesn't go out of its way to publicize this land, either.  We're not talking about Area 51, but there are enough stories about lost gold mines, hidden graves, and ghost towns inside those fences to make a real problem for the people charged with keeping the curious away from it and safe.

There are occasional guided tours for those with legitimate reasons to journey into this restricted area, and while the area is a no-fly zone, the government once even gave me permission to fly a small Cessna over it. 

It might surprise you to learn that Southern New Mexico has a daily traffic report.  The broadcast doesn't warn about traffic congestion, and no--it doesn't caution you about "the pass" being blocked by a trail drive.  It will, however, tell you how long the interstate will be shut down due to a missile launch.

A former student of mine, Jacob Harrington, now works as a photographer at the range, and he sent me these photographs.  I have put them here, with his permission, to show what remains of Pat Garrett's ranch.  If you click on the photos, you will get an enlargement.

Finally, here is something we can be sure about.  Pat Garret lived in this house, looked down from this mountain.  He worked this land. 

The land has mountain-fed spring water, and is alive with game.  Personally, I like the idea that this land will never be developed and will remain an isolated place of old memories and forgotten ghosts.  The last people who lived on and regularly walked this land, didn't read about the Old West: they lived it.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Death on the Brazos

The thunderstorm was pushing through Palo Pinto Canyon, and while the rain hadn't hit the ranch yet, it was only a matter of time.  Already, the lightning flashes and the rolling thunder were almost constant.  After so many years of drought, it seemed like all the prayers for rain were about to be answered at the same time.

"Damn it," Mike said.  The old cowboy was worried about getting all the horses back from the pasture and safely into the barn before the storm hit.  "Damn fool horses have scattered as far apart as they can get."

"I don't know anything about rounding up horses," said his wife, Barbara.  "But I can tell you how to get a hundred cows into a barn."

"How the hell do you do that?" asked Mike.  This was a strange statement from his wife, as one of the reasons he had married her was that she knew almost nothing about ranching--he had been ready for something different.

Keeping her eyes on the dirt trail as she drove the pickup, Barbara answered, "Easy!  Just hang a sign on the barn that says 'BINGO'."

The old cowboy couldn't help but smile.  When Matt, his son, had asked him why he had remarried a woman half his age, he had replied, "At my age, boy, I prefer the smell of perfume to that of liniment."   While this had satisfied his son, the real reason the cowboy had married the fiery redhead was simply that he was pretty sure the beauty was smarter than him.

The rain was just starting as he got the last of the three horses safely into their stalls in the barn.     Perhaps the drought had influenced his judgment, but the heavy rain sounded like music on the tin roof of the barn to him.  That music almost, but not quite, drowned out the sound of his cell phone.

"Damn," Mike muttered as he dug the phone out of his pocket.  He really hated the damn phone, but it was the second one his wife had bought him in the last three months.  He was pretty sure she wouldn't believe another story about one's accidental death.  Looking at the display, he saw the call was from Kent, his neighboring rancher and close friend.

"Mike," Kent said.  "I just talked to Cathy over in Santo.  Lightning just killed her mare and its colt.  She's pretty upset, and wants to know if we could help bury the horses.  She sounds almost hysterical."

"Aw, that's terrible.  I know how much she loved that horse.  Of course, I'll help.  If the rain lets up, we could do it first thing in the morning."

"Uh..well, she was screaming into the phone," Kent said.

Mike stood still in the barn, his eyes shut.  Cathy was one of those people who didn't just like horses, she loved them.  She lived in a little community of what the locals called horse nuts--people who had moved farther out from the city in order to own a dozen acres or so, in order to indulge their hobby horses.  Mike rode horses, he used them, he respected them--but he did not trust them and he damn sure didn't love them.  In general, he considered them reliable four-wheel drive vehicles that--in an emergency--you could eat.  As often as accidents took horses, Mike was amazed that no one yet had started marketing a line of Horsey-Helper. 

Even though he already knew the answer, Mike asked the question, "What did you tell her?"

"I told her that we would bring your backhoe over tonight and bury the horses," Kent said.

"That Case isn't street legal and the trailer is in the shop getting a new axle."

"I'll come over and drive my pickup ahead of you with the flashers on," Kent answered.  "We'll go slow."

It was a very long drive into town.  The backhoe wasn't designed to drive the ten miles into town, and between the big shovel on the front end and the backhoe behind, every time the vehicle got over about ten miles an hour, the heavy machine would begin rocking back and forth on the twisting road coming down off of Chesnut Mountain to the small town of Santo, built along the Brazos River.  It took over an hour to drive the dozen miles through the town to the two dozen homes of the small community where Cathy lived, and most of the way, Mike thought the backend of the Case was trying to pass itself on the curves.

Kent got out of his truck and opened the gate into the corral as Mike drove the backhoe over to  where the two dead horses lay, the smaller one just a dozen feet from the larger body of the mare.  In the frequent lightning flashes, Mike could see that surrounding the horses were a dozen or so raincoat-clad people from the community, standing reverently in the steady downpour.  These were the horse nuts, collectively they couldn't tell dung from wild honey.

While Kent went into the house to confer with Cathy, Mike sat in the Case's cab, wondering just how he had got involved in all this stupidity.  As far as he could tell, he was sitting in the largest hunk of metal in the area, with the tall arm of the backhoe stuck straight into the air--like a lightning rod--in the middle of an electrical storm.  Contrary to popular opinion, lightning did strike twice--or more--in the same area.  Whatever the conditions were that made lightning strike at this point, they were now improved by the addition of several tons of steel.

Shortly, Kent walked back to the backhoe.  "She wants them buried here in the corral," he said. 

Not bothering to reply, Mike started to use the backhoe to dig the hole.  He would need a hole about eight feet deep and just as wide to bury the two horses.  Even in the soft sand of the corral, this would likely take hours.

As Mike worked the backhoe, moving the dirt to the side of the hole, it seemed the rain was working equally hard to refill the hole with water.  The small community of mourners stood around the impromptu grave, shining their flashlights into the hole.  Mike's mind really wasn't on the work--he kept thinking, "Well, I guess the only way you make this backhoe a better lightning rod would be to bury the bucket deep into the muddy ground.  Like, I'm doing now."

After what seemed like an eternity in the rain and lightning, one of the mourners walked over to the cab and shouted up at Mike, "See if you can put the two horses into the grave gently, and we can ask Cathy to come out while we say a few words before you cover them up."

"Right," Mike thought.  "And if we stand close enough to the hole, when the lightning strikes, we can all just fall in."

Feeling a little guilty at what he was thinking, Mike tried to change the subject by innocently asking, "What was the mare's name?"

"Lucky," the man replied.

Mike didn't even bother to reply, but thought to himself, "If the colt was named Lightning, this would just about be perfect."

Finally, the hole was finished, though there was at least a foot of water in the bottom.  Mike thought hard about how to put the horse into the hole.  Neither the large bucket of the front end loader or the backhoe's bucket was exactly designed to do delicate work   The result of using either could not exactly be called "gently."

Mike tried to slide the bucket of the front end loader under the mare, but succeeded only in shoving the horse along the soft mud.  Finally, in desperation, he moved back several yards and moving forward rapidly, scooped up the mare in the bucket.  Raising the bucket several feet, he moved the Case over to the hole and pulled the lever that allowed the bucket to drop its load.

The mare executed almost three quarters of a complete revolution, landing with a great splash on its legs--at least for the briefest of seconds before the horse collapsed into the mud and water, its legs splaying out to the sides or folding up alongside the horse.  The effect, was horrible and even over the roar of the engine, Mike could hear the collective gasp of the mourners.

Before the mourners could voice any criticism, Mike roared off with the Case and repeated the procedure with the colt.  Perhaps the bucket was raised higher, or maybe it was because the younger horse weighed less than its parent, but the colt did a complete revolution and landed in the pit on its back--legs in the air--directly beside the other horse.

Mike couldn't help himself, he started giggling.  The flashlights of the mourners didn't reveal the contents of the bottom of the pit, but the periodic lightning flashes certainly did.  The two horses, with their legs pointing in opposite directions, were ghastly to look at. 

"That looks good," Mike yelled to the mourners,  "Bring her out!"  Mike was on the edge of hysteria--he knew that if he started laughing, he wouldn't be able to stop.

Two hours later, Mike was back at home.  Cathy had not, after all, come to view the horses in the grave.  Mike had simply pushed the accumulated muddy dirt back into the hole and followed Kent's truck back to his house. 

"So, how did it go? asked Barbara as she met him at the door."

"Oh, not bad," answered Mike.  "Not everyday you get to do a burial at sea."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Irritable Owl Syndrome

The barn owl sat on top of the light pole, watching the small gulley.  As the sun set, the owl slowly opened its eyes—a more complicated move than you might think as each eye had three eyelids.  For several minutes, the owl studied the gulley, looking for food.  Even as the sun set, the owl continued to watch—owls' eyes aren't  really "balls" but more like tubes that have excellent night vision.

After several minutes, the owl let out a single "HOOT."

Almost a hundred feet away, the field mouse sat under a small cedar bush, completely hidden from the owl.  Already fairly still, the sound of the owl froze the rodent.  Now, the mouse would not risk moving even a whisker.

Field mice made up a sizable part of the diet of almost every predator that lived along the Brazos River in Texas.  Owls, hawks, bobcatseven rattlesnakeshunted the defenseless rodents.  But the owlsthe silent killerswere especially frightening.

The owl slowly moved its large head.  While he had a fairly wide field of vision due to the shape of his eyes, he only had binocular vision for about 70 degrees directly in front of him.  As he slowly moved his head, every square inch of the gulley could be closely examined for movement.

Once again, the owl emitted a single long "HOOOOT."

The mouse was safe since there was no direct line of sight between him and the owl.  At least, as long as he stayed absolutely still, he was safe.

The owl shifted his head slightly and using small facial muscles, reshaped the dish shaped depressions surrounding his ears.  The owl's hearing was excellent, but in particular, he could hear the small sounds that prey would make as it moved through vegetation.

"HOOT," went the owl.

The owl’s ears were located on his head slightly asymmetrically, giving his head a slightly lopsided look, but enabling the winged predator to detect the slightest time difference it took a sound to reach each of his ears.  Able to detect time differences as minuscule as 30 millionths of a second, the owl could accurately locate the source of any sound.

"HOOT," went the owl.

By now, the mouse was terrified.  If he waited long enough, he knew that the owl would have to move on to find a meal.  Why wasn't the owl leaving?  He should have moved by now.

"HOOT," went the owl.

The mouse was sure now that the owl must know where he was hiding.  A short distance away, just past the bush he was hiding under, was a small hole under a rock—a much better hiding place.  Perhaps the mouse should move to the safer spot.  And he should move before the owl spotted him.

"HOOT," went the owl.

Unable to wait any longer, the terrified mouse scampered towards the hole and safety.

From 100 feet away, the owl heard the faintest sound coming from his right.  He quickly turned his head until the sound was reaching both ears simultaneously, meaning that his head was facing directly towards the mouse.  Almost immediately, his excellent binocular vision located the almost invisible gray mouse in the growing darkness.

The owl was completely silent as he glided down the gulley and snatched up his meal with his talons.  The mouse never knew what killed him as the long strong claws ripped through his body.  The owl now strongly beat his wings as he climbed out of the gulley and flew the short distance back to the top of the utility pole next to the barn where he enjoyed the first of several small rodents he would eat that night.

From a porch fifty feet away, where the two old ranchers sat in their rockers, the owl could be seen silhouetted in the last twilight.  They, too, had listened to the hoots of the owl, for several minutes.

"Didn’t even take ten minutes.  Told ya so," said Mike as he held out his hand.

Kent shifted in his rocker and reached into his hip pocket, pulling out a clip of bills.  Peeling off a single dollar to put in the outstretched hand, he said, "Should have bet on the owl."

"You're just irritated because you lost again," Mike said as he pocketed the bill.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Summer at Enema U

It is summer at Enema U.  I can tell, because the buildings are almost empty of intelligent life forms.  NASA could send a probe and probably find nothing higher on the intelligence scale than a few tenured professors--and that hardly counts.  

Except, of course, for the secretaries.  This is the time of year when I really feel sorry for the secretaries.  Everyone who works at a university loves the students (most of them, anyway).  Students are why we are here, and when you take them away, there is nothing left in the buildings but faculty and administratorsjust about the definition of Hell.

Lately, I have been thinking about one particular secretary.  She has a permanent smile and the patience of a pyramid.  She is always good-natured and pleasant even while dealing with the most obstreperous professor, but, if you look into her eyes, you can see the glow of angry intelligence, like coals banked for the night in a fireplace.  Any minute now, shes gonna' reach a combustion point, and turn into a raging inferno.  Shell fetch up the nearest professor and crack a shriveled neck like a twig.  (I have a shovel in the truck and will gladly volunteer to help hide the carcass.  Why did God make so much desert if it wasnt to hide the corpses of the guilty?)  

The problem with some faculty--our little hot-house flowers--is that they demand to be treated like orchids, while in reality the blooming idiots behave like noxious weeds.  They exhibit the rude-mannered self-absorption that is only attainable with an advanced academic degree. 

The sociologist, Max Weber observed in the early 20th century, that while bureaucracy is in some instances an optimal organizational mode for a rationalized, industrial society, it has drawbacks. One is that public bureaucracies quit being about serving the public and focus instead on perpetuating themselves. 

The above, of course, applies perfectly to universities.  While we all start with the best interests of the student uppermost in our minds...somewhere along the way we just lose focus.  Somehow, our goals shift to building the new athletic building, the new office building, or the next travel grant.  

If student enrollment were to grow as fast as administration….well, it just can’t.  At the rate we are sacrificing classrooms to make more room for the administration, within a few years we will have to hire people from other states to work online.  There simply won’t be enough room for any of those pesky students.

I know some Adjunct professors who work like Dickensian orphans while being paid so little they survive on a steady diet of Bottom Ramen.  At the same time, there are tenure track professors whose salaries are three times that of adjuncts, but instead of teaching, they show so many movies that their classrooms have a permanent aroma of popcorn.  

Take, for example, one of our professors:  Professor Maleficent used to be the Dean of Women at the local state women's prison, but is now the Bin Laden Chair of Maenadian Studies.  While it might be inaccurate to say she completely ignores the students, she currently timeshares a virtual classroom.  This pretty much eliminates the need to actually confront students, since she has found it conveniently easy to ignore virtual students.  

A few professors still occasionally move through the building (usually on their way to the swimming pool), going as slow as a milk cow with a full bag.  The work ethic of a university in summertime would appall even the French.  You have to remember, we are government employees.  The only way to make a government employee work slower is to shoot them in the heart.  However, this will not work on administrators since, by definition, they are as heartless as Republicans with a budget deficit.  

The only nice thing you can say about some lazy ass professors is that in the case of a zombie attack, we can outrun them.  (Then again, if zombies actually eat brains, some professors might be viewed as undesirable low-calorie diet food--despite an abundance of advanced academic degrees!).  

Summer is also the time when we say goodbye to some faculty, as this is the time of year when some faculty retire.  The state retirement system is somewhat complicated--I've been here 18 years and just recently received my 10-year pin.  I would explain that...if I could.  

For retirees, the university has some lovely parting gifts.  Everyone gets the take home version of the game.  At 25 years, you are given two 10 year pins and time alone with a shotgun.  At 40 years, you get a Nambe bathtub.  I think I'm going to shoot for 50 years so I can get a Nambe Suburban.  

But this is the summer.  By fall, the passion for teaching will rekindle in almost all of us.  Along with the students, usually there is a return of hope, enthusiasm, and a renewed impatience to return to the classroom.  Most of the above is the product of pessimism produced by vacant classrooms, deserted halls, and empty parking lots.