- Ranching on Dry Ground
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On top of one of the mesas at the ranch at sunset while looking out above a valley toward other distant blue mesas, the view is a grandiose background for a Western movie or a chorus singing, “O beautiful for spacious skies. . . .” The chorus would be standing on dry ground. [End Page 111]
This ranch I eventually inherited is, by Southwestern measures, a small one spreading over parts of Lampasas and Coryell counties in central Texas. Roughly arrow-shaped, it’s located in the northernmost hill country. From horseback in the spring, the land resembles a large English park until you get down from the saddle and something bites or scratches you.
There is no running water, not a single creek. The nearest river is about three miles distant. In order to water livestock, we use rain-fed “tanks,” as ponds are called here, windmills and springs when we can find them. We need all these sources, as the average annual rainfall, supposedly 31 inches, is just a number we refer to ironically.
When I first came to the state in 1946, I was twelve, a city child who knew nothing about ranches. My stepmother began putting hers together in 1940 at the end of the Depression by buying a number of small places near Evant, her hometown, when land, which had been selling for $26 to $28 an acre, fell to $6 to $8 an acre. Actually, in 1942 she paid the smallest amount she would ever have to pay, only $5.76 an acre. Though prices slowly went up, she kept piecing small parcels together until she had enough to lease to her brother to run cattle on. After she married my father, he added 160 more acres Mother called “the G.I. pasture,” since he bought it via the Texas Veterans’ Land Loan Program in 1957. With this addition and 33 acres my husband, Joe, added using the same program, we thought the ranch was about 1,400 acres.
Then in 1992 the Texas Land Office made the most maddening discovery: we had, in legal terminology, a “vacancy.” Our ranch surrounded 33.22 acres belonging to the state. Exactly how this happened—careless surveyors, bad copyists, faulty corner marks—couldn’t possibly be traced. (One 1879 survey designated a corner using “a rock mound and a Spanish oak marked E.”) If land belongs to the state, the state can sell it to anyone. When Texas joined the union, it held title to all the land originally belonging to the Spanish king, then to Mexico. To us, the Texas Land Office was acting like royalty about those acres in the midst of our west pasture, the one everybody used to enter the ranch. It was as though an ancient quarrel between landlord and peasant had surfaced: Mother had to purchase the state’s last hold on our land. After putting together so much cheap acreage earlier, she paid $300 an acre to buy the vacancy. It was about half of what my husband had to spend, but it wasn’t as dear, since it was landlocked. [End Page 112]
Our family never actually lived on the ranch. My parents’ house in Gatesville, 30 miles east, was our headquarters. The first Christmas in Texas, four months after moving there from Tennessee, my brother, Billy, ten, and I received matching boots, factory made with red leather longhorn heads outlined in front, and were reminded we had to wear them at the ranch.
We quickly learned the rules for avoiding rattlesnakes, native dwellers in our dry country: watch where you put your boots, and if you see a snake, run as fast as you can to the nearest grown-up. We spent a lot of time studying the ground. Billy threw rocks to kill rattlers. Fortunately, I didn’t have to confront one until much later, when I was grown. The horse I rode, startled by a rattle, shied and, without my reining him, picked another path. Although the same rules applied to copperhead and coral snakes, I saw copperheads...