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How Cold Was It?

My great-grandfather on my momma's side, William Wilson Spencer, was a sure-enough old time cowboy who rode in some of the cattle drives from Texas and Oklahoma up north to the Dakotas and Montana. Usually he had the good sense to make it back home to Texas before winter, but one year--I think it was in the latter 1880's--a rancher offered him cash money and found to stay the winter and help look after the stock at the home ranch. He accepted and settled in.

Things went well enough through the Autumn, and he figured he'd take it easy during the long winter and come Spring he'd collect his wages and head on back to Texas with enough of a stake to maybe get his own little spread. But the winter turned brutally cold and soon he was miserable and cussing himself for agreeing to stay in Montana. But travel back to Texas was impossible until the Spring thaw, so he determined to make the best of an icy situation. He had a warm bed, decent food, a string of four horses, and a cow dog he called Ol' Shep. Yeah, life could have been worse.

But the winter did grow worse, one of the worst in local memory. Streams froze solid, ice formed in the treetops and limbs came crashing down, wildlife and cattle starved and froze to death because they couldn't break through the crust of frozen snow to get to the dried grass below. But ol' Will Spencer persevered. He did his job, breaking up ice with an axe so the cattle could get to water, hauling hay to the herds scattered far from the home ranch, and spending the long winter nights in the company of two other cowhands, the cook, and Ol' Shep.

At long last each dawn was a few moments earlier than the previous. The ice covering streams and ponds seemed just a bit thinner than what Will broke up the morning before. Then one day there were actually a few fitful trickles of water dripping off the roof above the kitchen. Winter was gradually, reluctantly, losing its grip.

It was about that time a truly strange and remarkable incident happened, one my great-grandfather Will always swore was true. While tossing some hay to his horses in the stable he heard the excited barking of a sounded like Ol' Shep's bark, but the cowdog was right there with him and was silent. Will stepped outside to look for the source of the barking but it seemed to come from every direction. Ol' Shep trotted out beside him...looked all about...whined...and ran back inside the stable. Will was puzzled, unable to determine where the barking came from, and at the same time almost dead certain it was his own dog's bark. At last the barking faded away and Will went back to work.

The phenomenon re-occurred some three or four times over the next few weeks, always during the day, as the Sun pushed back the frozen remnants of a brutal Winter. Finally there was no more mysterious barking.

Old Will pondered and wondered about these strange goings-on, until finally he figured out what had happened. You see, that Winter was the coldest, the cruelest, the bitterest in Montana history. The land froze hard. The icy air seared the lungs if you were foolish enough to breathe it with your face uncovered and unprotected. And that was the cause of the mysterious barking. During the dead of that Winter, it was so cold that whenever Ol' Shep would bark, those barks just naturally froze, and you had to wait 'til they thawed to hear them.

How Many Sons-In-Law Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?

More than one, evidently, but in a pinch one can do the job, just barely.

My mother-in-law's hall light burned out and it's a dark, dark hallway, so light is essential. I climb the ladder and unscrew the decorative globe and remove the bulb. It goes into the trash and I rob a one-way bulb from a three-way lamp, replacing it with the right kind of bulb.

Meanwhile I wash the globe to rid it of the dessicated roach bodies. Yuck!

Up the ladder again and in goes the bulb. I test it, and, yes, it shines nice and bright! So down the ladder to fetch the now-dry globe.

Another trip up the ladder and discover the replacement bulb is too long for the globe. I unscrew the bulb and dismount. (I'm not sure one really dismounts a ladder, but remember, I'm a cowboy so any chore I can even remotely relate to horses I will so relate!) I scrounge around in the hall closet among a true plethora (check the dictionary meaning) of light bulbs and find a short-enough one.

Up the ladder I go, in goes the bulb, flick goes the light switch...and the bulb doesn't work. For some reason she's saved a burned-out light bulb. Off the ladder again and the spent bulb joins the first one in the trash. I stick my head into the closet once more and find another short-enough bulb. Correct wattage and all.

I re-mount the ladder again (cowboy, remember, I'm a cowboy) and install the third Bulb Of the Day. Does it work? YES! There is light!

The sparkling clean, roach-free globe is secured into place and there is now beautiful diffused light in the hallway.

Dang...with the light on now everyone can see how badly that hall carpet needs to be vacuumed!

But that's a job for a cowgirl.


She stands tall and fair and impossible to overlook in the airport's duty free shop. Her ash-blond hair and heaven-blue eyes cause more than one head to turn for a second, a third glance in her direction.

Evelina is her name. She's 18 and Nicaraguan, but carries only latent genes from her tropics-born mother. Instead her features bespeak the memory of her East German father, long-returned to his homeland. Perhaps her delicate cheek bones and milky complexion are the only memories her mother has of her lover, one of hundreds of military advisors whose tours of duty brought them to this hot and dreary outpost. Her hair is pulled back and fastened with a black bow, exposing her ears and throat, emphasizing her whiteness next to her light bronze coworkers. She is tall and slim, nearly a head taller than her latin companions, like an especially beautiful flower standing a bit more lovely than the others in their little garden. Her movements are slow and graceful, as graceful as willows in a gentle summer breeze. Evelina sells watches and perfumes and T-shirts and American liquors to departing international travelers. I sit and watch from the chairs in front of her shop, John Grisham momentarily forgotten. She shares a joke with Marvina, their laughter mingling on its way to where I sit. Marvina's laugh is like thick, sweet honey, Evelina's like water bubbling from a cold spring.

During a lull between departing flights Evelina sits on a stool behind the perfume counter, a barely-perceptible look of tiredness crossing her face. It's not a tiredness of body that she feels but a tiredness of spirit. It's a tiredness that comes from growing up being always different from her classmates, her friends, her two half-sisters. Some of them may not have known their fathers either, but their café con leche complexions hid the fact better than Evelina's. Even as her lips grace her admirers with a smile, there is a distant look in her eyes. I wonder how much of her heart leaves with each departing customer. Does she ever dream of a country where she does not stand out so emphatically as being a child born of a brief union between a soldier chilled by loneliness and a woman burning with a desire to escape a nation destroyed by war? How cold is the loneliness of her own heart every time she looks in the mirror and thinks of a father she rarely ever saw? What are the passions that burn inside her as she works in a menial job, earning barely enough to pay her tuition as she seeks to escape the same desperation that entrapped her mother?

I watch and try not to be noticed, hoping that by observing quietly I might capture a thought or an emotion. Marvina notices me and we exchange smiles, hers curious and mine slightly embarrassed. I return to my Evelina vigil. I consider shopping for some perfume, knowing they'll not have the fragrance I'd be expected to buy, which would give me a few extra moments of conversation. But now the clock becomes a player in the game. She glances at her watch. Her left foot plays idly with her shoe, dangling it from her toes. She grows impatient in the shop with no customers to occupy her, only thoughts of the minutes creeping slowly towards quitting time. When the day's last flight leaves Managua she'll be leaving, too, but her departure will take her only as far as a neighborhood where unpaved streets wind around drab concrete-block houses. I've seen houses like Evelina's. I've been in some of them. Memories of their still and dusty heat make me feel another part of her tiredness, that which comes from a slowly fading hope for anything better. Will that hope linger long enough to blossom? Or will it fade and wither, finally falling to the ground before it fully matures?

I'll likely never know, for now my flight is being announced. I pack my pad and pen into my carry-on, gather my belongings, and rise to head for the gate. I look once more towards the perfume counter but don't see Evelina. I step forward almost to the entrance looking for her, but she's gone. The line at the gate is forming. It is time for me to go. I head for my plane, hoping I'll return soon, while Evelina still works here. I walk across the hot tarmac towards the boarding ramp and hope she will walk this way herself, one day. I seat myself and wish she were on the same flight, closing a door to the past, heading to her own home were someone waits for her with a smile and an embrace of acceptance. I feel the plane break free from the earth, and I think a brief prayer for Evelina - that she too will one day be free from a past she didn't make, free to build a future with those who see beyond the differences that have haunted her for so long.

Good-bye, Evelina...until we meet again...


For years I was dreamin' about gettin' rich by bein' a lottery winner.
But the tickets I bought, they all came to nought while my wallet just kept gettin' thinner.

All I was needin' was one lucky draw and I'd be in fi-nanshul heaven,
But I won no cash when I played Mix and Match and struck out when I played Super 7.

I dreamed how I'd spend my winnin's each day while chasin' wild cows from the thickets,
But I could paper the walls of several dance halls with my worthless torn-up Lotto tickets.

Oh, I was real reg'lar at buyin' them things! Day-dreamin', my riches I'd see!
But I had no luck, I won not one buck from Mega Millions or Midday Pick 3.

I tried playin' Bingo, and Hot Lotto, too, but my luck, it kept gettin' worse
'Til I lost it all on the big Powerball that finally emptied my purse.

And so, I was beat, flat nuthin' I'd won! My ego had taken a bruisin'.
I was near broke, my spurs were in soak, and I was worn out from the losin'.

My dobber was draggin', a failure I felt, guess I wasn't cut out for winnin'!
But after a time a thought come to mind that soon turned my frownin' to grinnin'.

While frettin' and strugglin' to just "strike it rich" I'd forgotten a mighty big part
Of bein' content with the way my life went had something to do with my heart.

Why, Hon, I'm a rich man! I'm rollin' in wealth! My wildest dreams all have come true!
And I've YOU to thank, 'cause I broke the bank of love...when I fell for you!

Don Juan

Don Juan was in prison.

His daughter Ana ran to tell me the news as my pickup rattled into the wide spot in the dirt road the people who lived there called Galeras. It isn't a town, not even a village, just a collection of houses that had to be built somewhere, and for unknown reasons they were built here. A tiny place, a hard place, a lonely place. Forty-five minutes of gravel, dirt and potholes to the nearest paved road. Water runs down from natural springs higher up in the hills, through plastic pipes and hoses put there by CARE in an attempt to give the people something they could call potable water. There isn't any electricity, except for the generator at Ruperto's house where I spent most weekends. Folks here are farmers, raising corn and pigs and children, all considered essential for a reasonably long and marginally prosperous life in rural Honduras. Juan had a small farm with dismal looking corn, five children, and a two-room adobe house with a clay tile roof. That's where I met Juan, where we became friends, under his roof.

For some reason we hit it off from the beginning. I'd get to Ruperto's house about three in the afternoon, drop off my backpack, and begin my ritual walk around Galeras, talking with people and generally looking out of place, the only person within miles with more than just a hint of European genes. One afternoon I met Juan. He invited me in for coffee, and we talked about politics, crops, the weather, his family, his life...the things that men with more empty hours than hopes talk about. We passed whole afternoons together. If times were good he'd ask his wife to bring us tortillas and fresh cheese, or some tamales she'd made from corn masa and mysterious pieces of meat. We'd sit and talk until dark, then he'd light the homemade lamp, an old brake fluid can half-filled with kerosene and a strip of cloth for a wick. The flickering orange light it provided was only slightly brighter than the darkness around us, but in it I could see Juan, surrounded by all his worldly goods, his face lined from days in the sun, his eyes alive with friendship. Now he was in prison. He was my friend. I went to see him.

The prison was at Yuscarán. Forty-five minutes back to the highway, another half-hour to the turnoff, then thirty minutes of dust and gravel and I was there. A gold mine birthed the town in colonial times, but that played out, and now the main sources of employment were the distillery, a few unimportant government offices and the prison. I presented myself to the guard, and asked if I could visit a prisoner. A full body search later I entered Juan's new world. There was a large central patio of sandal-packed dirt. Surrounding the patio were cells built for ten and holding thirty. I looked for Juan and found him in his usual T-shirt, brown pants and sweat-stained straw hat. Vacant brown eyes came alive when he saw me. We didn't shake hands, Juan grabbed me and hugged me, a manly Latin abrazo. I hugged back. He was embarrassed to be in prison, but, life is that way, isn't it? A man struggles just to make a living for himself and his family, then celebrates the sale of a good corn crop with a bottle of aguardiente and...his shrug spoke eloquently.

"Please, let's find some shade," he said, and we headed towards a wall. On the way we passed someone selling bananas...Juan reached into his pocket, pulled out ten centavos, and bought two. He smiled and gave me one. It was almost too precious a gift to eat. We squatted in the shade, sitting on our heels, our backs leaning against the wall. We talked, not looking at each other because of his shame. Yes, he was doing fine, but missed his family. Yes, he had enough money to buy extra food to supplement the prison's meager rations, but...well...he needed money to pay a fine. Or a lawyer, I was never really sure which, but it didnt' matter. He needed $100. A pair of shoes to me, but freedom to him. Would I please give the money to Ana, and she'd make certain the legal expenses were paid, and he'd pay me back a little at a time until the debt was cancelled? Certainly. Within ten days Juan was home with his family.

Juan was a prisoner who could be set free because he was held behind walls of concrete and bars of iron. Galeras held other prisoners not so easily given their freedom. Prisoners of ignorance, of tradition, of poverty. Most are there still, only a very few have beem set free.

When A Feller Oughta Keep Quiet

Let me tell you `bout a mountain lion a `way out in th' west.
When it come to killin' cows an' sheep, why, he must've been th' best.
A reg'lar varmint legend of widespread renown,
He was the scourge of ranchers for a'hunnerd miles around.

While passin' through a cattle ranch he killed hisself a bull,
He ate an' ate, an' stuffed hisself until he was plumb full!
Then to celebrate th' feast, or maybe cuz he was bored,
That fat ol' mountain lion rared back and roared-an' roared an' roared!

Now all the caterwaulin' that th' mountain lion had done
Caught the ear of a passin' cowboy, who pulled out his trusty gun.
He took his aim.his shot was' to that cat's su'prise,
Th' cowboy shot hisself a lion! Smack between th' eyes!

So the moral to my story, with no "if" "and" or "but,"
Is when a feller's full o' bull. he'd best keep his mouth shut!


"Why does the sea sparkle like the heavens when Night Sky comes, Father?"

Night Sky comes gently, its blue-black velvet cloaking the Earth and those two who gaze
in wonder below. Father and daughter, a man of quiet courage, a child of sweet grace.
She shares with her father his love for the Night Sky, is blessed with her mother's spirit and charm.
It cannot be measured, the love that's within him, that swells in his heart for the child in his arms.

He cannot imagine, nor does he want to! how empty his life would be without they
who make life worth living: his precious Rain Sparrow and she they named Dawnlight, born with the day.
The Night Sky above them, the sea in the distance, both seem alive with the cold winking light
of starshine! "Please, Father, tell me the story. Why does the sea look like heaven tonight?"

Waiting Heart smiles -- this child and her questions! Constantly "Why, Father? Please tell me why!
Why do the geese fly away in the winter? Why does the sun not fall from the sky?
Why are the aspen leaves green, and then golden? Why does a bird build its nest in a tree?
Why do the stars that shine in the heavens sparkle and blaze just as bright in the sea?"

All of the stars you see when Night Sky comes, did you know...they are all brothers and sisters?

Brothers and sisters? All of them? How old are they, Father, are they as old as I am?

They were born so many, many winters ago, no one knows how old they are! Just as no one knows how many they are.

No one, Father? There are lots and lots of stars, aren't there?

Yes, Dawnlight. The stars fill the universe, and there are so many, even the wisest of our people cannot count them! Only the Creator knows... But, you'll make me forget my story with your questions!

Please, no, Father! I'll listen...tell me the story!

From the beginning of time itself, just as the Creator made them to do, the stars filled the heavens. And when Night Sky came, they would all shine brightly, cheering one other with their beautiful starshine. And they would sing, Dawnlight! The stars would sing of the beauty of the heavens! They would sing with voices so sweet and so pure that all of creation would stop, and listen, and marvel at their glorious music!

But after shining and singing for so many winters, some of the stars began to grow tired of living in the heavens, with only their starbrothers and starsisters for company. They began to grow restless. They looked upon the Earth, at its blue waters and its white clouds. Some of them began to say to one another, "Wouldn't the Earth be a better place to live? It is so cold in the heavens! On the Earth, why, we could warm ourselves in its rich, yellow sun. Only our own brothers and sisters live in the heavens! On the Earth we could live among the People. Oh, the Earth would be a much better place to live!" Now their older starbrothers and starsisters heard this, and they cried out, "The heavens are our home! The Earth is not a place for starfamily! The sun of the Earth will not warm you, it will melt your starshine! The People of the Earth will not welcome you into their villages! Why, they'll not even see you among them!" But many of the little stars believed what the others said about the Earth, and they began to grow sad. Their songs were not so sweet, their starshine was not so bright. They yearned to leave their starfamily and go to live with the People on the Earth.

And that's what some of them decided to do. One evening, after Night Sky came, a hundred little stars decided to go to the Earth! So they left their family, and fell to the Earth! The first left a sparkling trail so his starsister could follow...then she left a trail for the brother behind her...and all through the night, one tiny star after another fell to the Earth, forever.

The next morning, when Night Sky had gone, they felt the warmth of the Earth's sun! They looked in wonder and amazement at the Earth's beauty! They saw colors they'd never before imagined, and heard songs they'd never before sung. And the People! They watched the People move freely about the Earth, caring for it, living from its bounty...they saw large People and small People and happy People and sad People, and they could hardly wait to live with them in their villages! Why, the Earth was ever so much more wonderful than they had imagined! They had been right all along, the warm and living Earth was a much better place to live than the cold and lonely heavens! They could hardly wait to tell their starfamily about the beautiful Earth the moment Night Sky came once again!

But when Night Sky came, the little stars that fell to the Earth looked at one another in astonishment: Where was their starshine? It was gone! The Earth's sun had melted their starshine with its warmth! Their radiance gone, no one could see them! The People of the Earth looked into the heavens at the starfamily there...but they couldn't see the little stars lying at their own feet! "Oh, starfamily! What shall we do? " they cried into the darkness. "Our starshine is gone, just as you said it would be! The People cannot see us! They will never take us to live in their villages! They will forget we ever existed! Oh please, starbrothers and starsisters, what shall we do?"

The stars still in the heavens heard their sad voices, and even though they wanted to help -- what could they do? So they began to could they help the little stars that fell to the Earth? How could they give them back their starshine? How could they make the People see them once again? Finally, after much thought, and much, much talking among themselves, they came upon a plan! Some more stars would go to the Earth! When Night Sky came again, more little stars began to fall to the Earth. The first left a trail for the second, and the second left a trail for the third, so that not one of them would lose their way to the Earth. But this time, not one of them fell in the forest! Nor on the plain! Nor among the mountains! All of them, from the first to the last, all of them fell into the sea! And when Night Sky had gone the Earth's sun could not melt their starshine with its warmth! In the sea they found the Earth as beautiful as on the land, alive with creatures and color and things too marvelous to be described! And when Night Sky came again the sea began to sparkle with their starshine! When the People of the Earth saw it, they shook their heads in amazement: The sea! Rolling and sparkling and twinkling with starshine just like the heavens!

And now, every time Night Sky comes, we can see more stars fall to the Earth, each one leaving a trail for the next, so none will lose its way. Some fall on the land to join the very first little stars that fell, but many, many more join those in the sea, adding their starshine to its waters! So when the sea sparkles and twinkles as brightly as the heavens, when you can see countless stars in its waters, it's the light from the stars that fell to the Earth, sharing their starshine with each other, with their starfamily still in the heavens, and with the People of the Earth.

Her silent voice tells him that Dawnlight lies dreaming. Her tenderness sparks that hot flame in his breast,
to guard and protect her! To teach and to love her! Never to fail her! Never to rest
from being the father this precious child merits. Never more manly, never more whole,
than when he's at rest beneath starry Night Sky. His child in his arms. At peace with his soul.

Do the stars still sing when Night Sky comes, Father?

Yes, my daughter. They sing for the pure in heart, and for the innocent. For those who will stop and listen, for those who haven't forgotten to look to the heavens in humility...


After well over a half-century of personal testing and evaluation I'm convinced I’m right when I say "all pie is good!" Pie’s not at all like what they call your other basic food groups, those being coffee and chili, because even though there is "better" pie and "best" pie, there's no such thing as "bad" pie.

First off, let me admit that calling anything "best" is strictly a personal matter, even if just about everyone agrees. So I don’t think less of a man (or a woman, for that matter) whose ideas about "best" pie aren’t the same as mine. Everybody ought to be true to his (or her) own heart and taste buds when it comes to pie.

Now, pie generally comes in the same basic shape, round, or at least curved on one edge, but with different stuff inside. Some folks prefer chocolate inside. Other folks don’t abide anything but apple. And a good case can be made for cherry, too. Like I said, there’s no such thing as a bad pie.

Whatever's inside, just about all of these are your standard round, baked pies.

But gentlemen (and ladies) whenever I start hankering for my own personal notion of best pie, it’s not a round one. And it’s not a baked one. The pie that sets my mouth to watering is sort of half-moon shaped and fried. And best fried in a cast-iron skillet.

Now that may surprise some of you—a fried pie winning anyone’s best pie contest? Well, in my own case there’s a reason for that, and that’s what I want to tell you.

It all goes back to the days when I was riding for the Sproel family. Those were the days when I was either ignorant of or indifferent to whatever world there was outside those 200 thousand acres of Heaven on Earth that the Lord had, naturally, placed in West Texas. Those were long days spent in the saddle. And short nights spent in rolled-up blankets. The eau-de-jour was a mixture of horse, cow, dust and man. Chuck was the usual "beef and beans" you find in every cow camp, but sometimes there were eggs and bacon and sausages and potatoes and Dutch-oven baking powder biscuits, all of them flavored with just a touch of wood smoke. My personal taste buds run to cedar and mesquite smoke when it comes to open-fire cooking. Once in awhile the "coosie" would even surprise us and prepare some additional "sweet" for the boys. Usually this was rice pudding with a handful of raisins thrown in, or maybe his version of a fruit cobbler made out of dried apples or dried peaches. I recall once he even made a cobbler of dried prunes just to break the monotony of apples and peaches, which it most certainly did do, but not without ructions that I’ll leave for another time.

But on truly special occasions he would knead out some additional biscuit dough (I’m sure he never even knew there was a recipe for "pie crust", and roll about a biscuit's worth flat and thin on a floured board, and drop a spoonful or two of stewed, sweetened dried fruit onto one half or the other of the circle. Then he’d fold the other half over the fruit, and seal the round edge with a fork or his fingers, whichever was handier, and drop the little half moons of raw dough into about two inches of hot fat. He’d keep an eye on things for a couple of minutes, then one flip with a fork, another couple of minutes’ worth of watch care, and then he'd remove those golden-brown little pies to some spread-out newspapers to cool. I swan, there’s nothing I’ve ever tasted better than a still-warm fried pie and a tin cup of hot, blacker-than-sin coffee.

My favorite recollection of coosie's fried pie cookery is one day in early fall when Toy Raynor and I were surveying the grass that was still green from the late August rains and making note where Mr. Sproel's cattle had scattered. Somehow those critters sensed the fall roundup was getting close, and took it upon themselves to make sure we all earned our fall wages by scattering themselves from here to yonder and back, so’s that every hand had to ride harder and longer than any other time of the year, except, of course, for the spring roundup. We had left the wagon just after daybreak and had ridden all morning northwest and up into some of the most rugged parts of the ranch. This was sure enough Paradise for me. Toy and I rode at our own pace, stopping from time to time to let our horses blow while Toy rolled and smoked a cigarette. I was happy just to wait for one of his stories or to learn more about my would-be profession from this old cowboy as he taught me to judge how many head the gramma would graze or to understand how cows thought and therefore figure where they could be found.

Well, on this particular day we expected to be riding all day and not get back to the wagon until the job was done or the sun had set, whichever came first. So coosie had packed us a lunch for our nooning. We weren’t in any special hurry to eat, since we'd fed ourselves pretty well at morning chuck, but when it was a little past noon we came to a slope with above-average grass and decided to stop, and give our horses and ourselves a chance to graze and rest. The slope slanted downward to the northeast and overlooked a wide valley that stretched north toward an upthrust of rust- and yellow-colored rock. The sky was as clear as spring water. There was a right nice breeze blowing in from Mexico down to the southwest. We could hear the cry of a red-tailed hawk somewhere off in the distance. The sight and the moment were just plain inspiring, even for a kid who saw this kind of scenery almost every day.

I loosened the cinches and removed the bits while Toy built a hatful of fire. I pulled the rolled-up horse blankets from behind our saddles and spread them on the ground. Toy already had unpacked the saddlebags with our lunch and the coffee pot. Coffee was making. We began to unwrap our two lunches—newspapers wrapped around a tea towel which was wrapped around two slices of bread with fried meat between them, a carrot, an apple, and in another, smaller towel, two fried pies. Toy looked at me, I looked at Toy, and he just grinned and said, "He went all out today, didn't he?" We sat in partial shade and ate our meat and bread. I got up walked over to the horses. Mine got the carrot, I never did like those things much, and I finished the apple. By then coffee was made. Toy pulled two tin cups out of the saddlebags and poured. It was time for dessert.

Now, you might not believe me when I tell you no king, no maharajah, no pharaoh of the richest kingdom on Earth has ever had any dessert tastier or any better than those fried apricot pies coosie packed for us, but I swear to you it's the truth or I'm a Yankee. The apricot filling was thick and sweet. The crust was browned just right, the edges were sealed so no filling oozed out until you bit into it, and the pies were still nice and warm after their 6-hour ride behind Toy's saddle. The coffee was hot, and no one ever accused Toy Raynor of using too much water in a pot of coffee. We took our time eating our pies, enjoying every bite, quiet, not wanting to say any word that might break the spell of that moment. The red-tailed hawk, one cicada, and two grazing horses provided our noonday conversation. Coosie's fried pies provided everything else we needed.

It's been more years than I care to count since that day, but whenever I ride out in the fall of the year the memory is as fresh as if it was yesterday. I can almost taste that sweet apricot filling and the fried biscuit dough crust. I catch myself sniffing the air, hoping for that old fragrance of men working cattle. I wonder where coosie and old Toy are now. Both dead, I reckon. They were "old men" when I was still a kid, and now I'm their age or more.

So I stand before you today, unashamedly convinced that while all pie is good, an apricot fried pie—and a memory of a good horse and a good friend—is unreservedly "best."


It was while I was recovering from a broken leg I had the bright idea of riding in a cattle roundup.

A few weeks earlier I was installing a light fixture for my mother-in-law andliterally fell victim to a cheap wooden Walmart stepladder. My foot slipped forward on the bottom rung and I fell backwards into the kitchen floor. I thought it was a bad sprain, and I limped around the rest of the afternoon and evening, but the next morning there was more swelling and unabated pain, so I went to the ER to have it checked.

"Tibial plateau fracture" was the diagnosis and I was in surgery before lunch. A six-day hospital stay and $22,000 later I was wheelchaired through TSA and three airports to get back home with an immobilized, fully extended left leg.

As soon as the local traumatologist would permit I began physical therapy. It sort of reminded me of my freshman year at TCU on Elmer Brown's student trainer staff, except this time I was the guy hurting when my leg was flexed more than five degrees.

And that's when I decided to sign on for the cattle drive.

It became a combination goal and reward, a measurable desired outcome: able to spend all day in the saddle by mid-March. I worked and sweated and hurt and came to appreciate Oxycodone almost as much as morphine. I was driven to be saddle-ready, and whenever the pain was at its worst I focused on riding again.

A week before I was to fly to Texas the traumatologist said "you're good to go." My physical therapist said I wasn't. But MD trumps RPT so I flew to Midland-Odessa and drove to Presidio in a rented car.

The next morning I was introduced to Rojo, a dark bay gelding, my mount for the roundup. The first day we gathered the longhorn cattle from their winter pasture, from the rocky hillsides and patches of prickly pear and honey mesquites. There were some veteran cow-critters with horns an impressive five feet tip-to-tip, some younger bulls and heifers, and of course a few unbranded calves. We herded them all to a holding pen where we ate supper and I crawled into my hot roll on the ground for the night.

The following day we moved the herd to the branding pens at the main ranch house. Youngsters were vaccinated, tagged and branded, and when they were released and went bawling back to mama we noted who belonged to whom. I mugged and branded longhorn calves, the leg was holding up fine.

On the third day we moved the cattle to their summer pasture. There was a caliche road running through the ranch and the old stock--they'd been through this a few times before--stuck to the road. But the younger animals, feeling adventurous I guess, they tended to wander away from the main herd. I'd begun the morning riding drag on Rojo, the place with the most dust and the worst view. So when I saw two or three yearlings head off to the right I turned Rojo off the road, kicked him in the sides a couple of times to convince him, yes, we ARE going through the brush
again, and took off in pursuit.

We caught and turned them back in toward the herd, but to keep them from running off again Rojo and I now rode flank, through the brush and occasional dry creek beds.

Now Rojo's background was mainly as a trail horse, and he didn't especially like where I took him. I had to keep him away from the road where he wanted to be with his cayuse friends. Eventually, though, the reality sunk into his little walnut brain that I was serous and we actually made a pretty good couple of hands.

I mentioned the dry creek beds. Those were the things Rojo hated most. He'd slide on his hocks down one bank, then pick up speed to climb up the other. We crossed three, Rojo straining and sweating but doing an altogether good job of it. And then we came to the fourth creek bed.

I was relaxed in the saddle, admiring the view and counting my blessings when we came to the next creek bed, and I felt Rojo's muscles tighten under me. In one brief moment of cowhand clairvoyance I knew what was going to happen next. I knew Rojo was not going to slide down one side and scramble up the other. Rojo was going to jump that creek bed.

In an instant we were airborne, Rojo's hindquarters launching us up and forward, his forelegs landing us gracefully, safely on the other side. I had no time to think before it was all over. I reckon I surprised Rojo as well as myself when I hollered, "Yeehaw, Rojo, let's do that again!"

It was the shortest flight I've ever taken. Also one of the best, the one I'll
remember for always. I looked around, and evidently no one had seen the feat. It was our secret, Rojo's and mine, a secret shared between a pretty good cow pony and an old cowboy with a busted leg.

Lessons In Time

My antique clock is back in its place on the bedroom wall, faithfully counting the seconds of each passing hour. I brought it home from the shop not long ago, its first trip to the shop in the 60-odd years I've owned it. A small piece had broken and allowed the mainspring to uncoil, making the clock useless until a master clock maker repaired the damage and set it running anew. I could have bought a new, prettier clock for less money, but this one has a history to it, and I'm not willing to give up on it as long as its imperfections can be made right.

The clock used to belong to a bank, which donated it to a church. One of the church members, a man then in his late 50's, told me he remembered carrying the clock in a small parade from the old church building to the new one in 1907 when he was a boy of 10. The clock hung in the church parlor, then the office, and finally, with the passage of time and the advent of modern clocks that relied on electricity instead of springs, it was relegated to the church kitchen, near the stove. There it hung for years, essentially neglected except for being wound every Sunday by the ladies who made coffee and served donuts to the church members. But at last the rigors of steam and dust and neglect took their toll. The clock stopped running and was discarded. Another boy, about 10 years old, found it in the trash can and retrieved it. That's when I became its owner and protector.

I took the clock home and opened up its wooden case. Inside I found wheels and springs and gears coated with the grease and dirt that had accumulated over the years. I carefully removed the mechanism and soaked it overnight in a coffee can half-filled with gasoline. I brushed and cleaned the debris away from the moving parts, then oiled them. When the mechanism was back in the case I sat the clock upright, pushed the pendulum, and hoped for the best. The clock began to tick! I adjusted the weight until the clock kept accurate time, which, I found, it could do with amazing accuracy! It then took its place on the wall in my room, marching into the future to the soft, steady sound of its own ticking. Even today it's capable of keeping perfect time, now that its heart is whole again.

My clock has taught me a little about life. Its history has several lessons for me. For example, what starts out as a joyful experience can turn into rather a tasteless life of doing my job, unnoticed and unappreciated. I may have a place of honor today, but a lesser role tomorrow, and perhaps even an ignoble place of service the day after. But in every moment it's still my responsibility to perform the role given me, with all the faithfulness I have, for as long as I'm able. I've also learned that sometimes we discard what is useful because we're unwilling or unable to restore it to service. We do that with clocks and computers and boots and...with people. Isn't it just less trying to give up on a friend who's disappointed us? Can't we avoid more heartache if we simply walk away from a relationship that no longer meets our needs? It is, and we can, but perhaps in so doing we've left another person in the trashcan, where they wait to be collected and disposed of for good. How much better it is to reach out, to reconcile, to restore. We don't have the power to give life, but we are capable of adding to its flavor and usefulness, if we only make the attempt. Finally, I've learned that there are some repairs I cannot make by myself. I need help, expert help from others. Somewhere, there's someone who understands my condition and knows how to make me right again so I can continue into the future, like my clock.

Each one of us serves our purpose, fulfilling our role with some degree of faithfulness. We tire, we accumulate debris that slows us down and makes us less effective. We change jobs or homes or partners, but the things that impede us remain inside, clogging up our mechanism, troubling our heart. One day we find ourselves at the point of being discarded as no longer useful to anyone. I think at that point we need a new owner and protector. I know this sounds foolish to some, but I firmly believe this is exactly the point where God is willing to intervene, to become that person to us. He will take us out of the trash can, clean out the debris, replace the parts that have broken, and give us the push we need to start ticking again.

My clock is back home where it belongs, marking its life and mine, teaching me about life with each soft and familiar tick.
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