Chapter Excerpt

1 The WandererThey had been on the road for six days, a clan of five bouncing along in a tired wagon, when Bam White woke to some bad news. One of his horses was dead. It was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a flat tire, except this was the winter of 1926. The Whites had no money. They were moving from the high desert chill of Las Animas, Colorado, to Littlefield, Texas, south of Amarillo, to start anew. Bam White was a ranch hand, a lover of horses and empty skies, at a time when the cowboy was becoming a museum piece in Texas and an icon in Hollywood. Within a year, Charles Lindbergh would cross the ocean in his monoplane, and a white man in blackface would speak from the screen of a motion picture show. The great ranches had been fenced, platted, subdivided, upturned, and were going out to city builders, oil drillers, and sodbusters. The least-populated part of Texas was open for business and riding high in the Roaring Twenties. Overnight, new towns were rising, bustling with banks, opera houses, electric streetlights, and restaurants serving seafood sent by train from Galveston.With his handlebar mustache, bowlegs, and raisin-skinned face, Bam White was a man high- centered in the wrong century. The plan was to get to Littlefield, where the winters were not as bad as Colorado, and see if one of the new fancy- pantsers might need a ranch hand with a quick mind. Word was, a family could always pick cotton as well. Now they were stuck in No Man's Land, a long strip of geographic afterthought in the far western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle, just a sneeze from Texas. After sunrise, Bam White had a talk with his remaining horses. He checked their hooves, which were worn and uneven, and looked into their eyes, trying to find a measure of his animals. They felt bony to the touch, emaciated by the march south and dwindling rations of feed. The family was not yet halfway into their exodus. Ahead were 209 miles of road over the high, dry roof of Texas, across the Canadian river, bypassing dozens of budding Panhandle hamlets: Wildorado, Lazbuddie, Flagg, Earth, Circle, Muleshoe, Progress, Circle Back. If you all can give me another two or three days, White told his horses, we'll rest you good. Get me to Amarillo, at least. Bam's wife, Lizzie, hated the feel of No Man's Land. The chill, hurried along by the wind, made it impossible to stay warm. The land was so threadbare. It was here that the Great Plains tilted, barely susceptible to most eyes, rising to nearly a mile above sea level at the western edge. The family considered dumping the organ, their prized possession. They could sell it in Boise City and make just enough to pick up another horse. They asked around: ten dollars was the going rate for an heirloom organ not enough to buy a horse. Anyway, Bam White could not bring himself to give it up. Some of the best memories, through the hardest of years, came with music pumped from that box. They would push on to Texas, twenty miles away, moving a lot slower. After burying their dead horse, they headed south. Through No Man's Land, the family wheeled past fields that had just been turned, the grass upside down. People in sputtering cars roared by, honking, hooting at the cowboy family in the horse-drawn wagon, churning up dust in their faces. The children kept asking if they were getting any closer to Texas and if it would look different from this long strip of Oklahoma. They seldom saw a tree in Cimarron County. There wasn't even grass for the horse team; the sod that hadn't been turned was frozen and brown. Windmills broke the plain, next to dugouts and sod houses and still-forming villages. Resting for a long spell at midday, the children played around a buffalo wallow, the ground mashed. Cimarron is a Mexican hybrid word, descended from the Apache who spent many nights in these same buffalo wallows. It means "wanderer."A few miles to the southeast, archaeologists were just starting to sort through a lost village, a place where natives, seven hundred years earlier, built a small urban complex near the Canadian River, the only reliable running water in the region. People had lived there for nearly two centuries and left only a few cryptic clues as to how they survived. When Francisco Vsquez de Coronado marched through the High Plains in 1541, trailing cattle, soldiers, and priests in pursuit of precious metals, he found only a handful of villages along the Arkansas River, the homes made of intertwined grass, and certainly no cities of gold as he was expecting. His entrada was a bust. Indians on foot passed through, following bison. Some of Bam White's distant forefathers the Querechos, ancestors of the Apache may have been among them. The Spanish brought horses, which had the same effect on the Plains Indian economy as railroads did on Anglo villages in the Midwest. The tribes grew bigger and more powerful, and were able to travel vast distances to hunt and trade. For most of the 1700s, the Apache dominated the Panhandle. Then came the Comanche, the Lords of the Plains. They migrated out of eastern Wyoming, Shoshone people who had lived in the upper Platte River drainage. With horses, the Comanche moved south, hunting and raiding over a huge swath of the southern plains, parts of present-day Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. At their peak in the mid-1700s, they numbered about twenty thousand. To the few whites who saw them in the days before homesteading, the Comanche looked like they sprang fully formed from the prairie grass. "They are the most extraordinary horsemen that I have seen yet in all my travels," said the artist George Catlin, who accompanied the cavalry on a reconnaissance mission to the southern plains in 1834. The Comanche were polygamous, which pleased many a fur trader adopted into the tribe. Naked, a Comanche woman was a mural unto herself, with a range of narrative tattoos all over her body. From afar, the Indians communicated with hand signals, part of a sign language developed to get around the wind's theft of their shouts. The Comanche bred horses and mules the most reliable currency of the 1800s and traded them with California-bound gold-seekers and Santa Febound merchants. In between, they fought Texans. The Comanche hated Texans more than any other group of people. Starting around 1840, the Texas Rangers were organized by the Republic of Texas to go after the Indians. A mounted Comanche was the most effective warrior of the plains. The Comanche were difficult targets but even better on offense. Years of hunting bison from horses at full speed gave them skills that made for an initial advantage over the Rangers. Once engaged in battle, they charged with a great, rhythmic whoop like a football cheer. After a raid and some rest, they would charge again, this time wearing their stolen booty, even women's dresses and bonnets. They were proud after killing Texans. "They made sorrow come into our camps, and we went out like buffalo bulls when the cows are attacked," said Comanche leader Ten Bears in 1867. "When we found them we killed them, and their scalps hang in our lodges. The white women cried, and our women laughed. The Comanches are not weak and blind like the pups of a dog when seven sleeps old." The Comanche buried their dead soldiers on a hill, if they could find one, and then killed the warriors" horses as well. Bison gave them just about everything they needed: clothes, shelter, tools, and of course a protein source that could be dried, smoked, and stewed. Some tepees required twenty bison skins, stretched and stitched together, and weighed 250 pounds, which was light enough to be portable. The animal stomachs were dried and used as food containers or water holders. Even tendons were put to good use, as bowstrings. To supplement the diet, there were wild plums, grapes, and currants growing in spring-fed creases of the .atland, and antelope, sage grouse, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens, though many Comanche thought it was unclean to eat a bird. The tribe had an agreement signed by the president of the United States and ratified by Congress, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, which promised the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and other tribes hunting rights to much of the Great American Desert, the area south of the Arkansas River. At the time, there was no more disparaged piece of ground in the coast- to-coast vision of manifest destiny. The nesters and sodbusters pouring into the postCivil War West could have the wetter parts of the plains, east of the one-hundredth meridian and beyond the Texas Caprock Escarpment. To the Indians would go the land that nobody wanted: the arid grasslands in the west. Early on, Comanchero traders called the heart of this area "el Llano Estacado" the Staked Plains. It got its name because it was so flat and featureless that people drove stakes into the ground to provide guidance; otherwise, a person could get lost in the eternity of flat. The Staked Plains were reserved for the natives who hunted bison. At the treaty signing,Ten Bears tried to explain why Indians could love the High Plains. "I was born upon the prairie where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures, and where everything drew free breath. I want to die there, and not within walls . . . The white man has taken the country we loved and we only wish to wander on the prairie until we die." Within a few years of the signing, Anglo hunters invaded the treaty land. They killed bison by the millions, stockpiling hides and horns for a lucrative trade back east. Seven million pounds of bison tongues were shipped out of Dodge City, Kansas, in a single two-year period, 18721873, a time when one government agent estimated the killing at twenty-five million. Bones, bleaching in the sun in great piles at railroad terminals, were used for fertilizer, selling for up to ten dollars a ton. Among the gluttons for killing was a professional buffalo hunter named Tom Nixon, who said he had once killed 120 animals in forty minutes. Texans ignored the Medicine Lodge Treaty outright, saying Texas land belonged to Texans, dating to the days of the Republic, and could not be offered up as part of the American public domain. With the bison diminishing, the Indians went after Anglo stock herds. Led by Quanah Parker and other leaders, the Comanche also attacked the trading post at Adobe Walls, just north of the Canadian River. Parker was regal-looking and charismatic, with soft features that made him appear almost feminine. His first name meant Sweet Smell, which is believed to have come from his mother, a Texan kidnapped at age nine and raised as a Comanche. She married into the tribe and raised three children, including Sweet Smell. After Cynthia Parker had lived twenty-four years as an Indian, the Texas Rangers kidnapped her back and killed her husband, Chief Peta Nocona. She begged to be returned to the Indians, but the Rangers would not let her go home. The Red River War of 18741875 broke the Comanche. In one battle, in Palo Duro Canyon, six Army columns descended on an Indian encampment, catching them by surprise. The natives fled. The Army slaughtered 1,048 horses, leaving the Lords of the Plains without their mounts for the remainder of the war. On foot and starving, they were no match for General Philip Sheridan and his industrial-age weaponry. The natives were sent to various camps in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, and some of their leaders were imprisoned in Florida. In his later years, Sweet Smell married seven women and built a large house. He founded a native religion based on vision quests through the hallucinogens peyote and mescal, a practice the Supreme Court ultimately upheld as a protected form of worship. The last bison were killed within five years after the Comanche Nation was routed and moved off the Llano Estacado. Just a few years earlier, there had been bison herds that covered fifty square miles. Bison were the Indians" commissary, and the remnants of the great southern herd had been run off the ground, every one of them, as a way to ensure that no Indian would ever wander the Texas Panhandle. "For the sake of a lasting peace," General Sheridan told the Texas Legislature in 1875, the Anglos should "kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairie can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy . . . forerunner of an advanced civilization." The animals left behind sun-crisped turds, which the nesters used to heat their dugouts and soddies, until they too ran out. Empty of bison and Indians, the prairie was a lonely place; it had taken barely ten years to eliminate them. In victory, the American government was not sure what to do with the land. "The High Plains continues to be the most alluring body of unoccupied land in the United States, and will remain such until the best means of their utilization have been worked out," the United States Geological Survey wrote in a report at the dawn of the twentieth century.At the Texas border, the White family crossed into the XIT ranch or rather, what was left of it. Virtually all his life Bam White had heard stories of the Eden of Texas, the fabled land of waist-high bluestem, of short, resilient buffalo turf, and the nutrient-rich grama, part of what Coronado had called "an immensity of grass." Horizon to horizon, buffalo heaven, and a cattleman's dream, the XIT had been part of the New World's magical endowment grasslands covering 21 percent of the United States and Canada, the largest single ecosystem on the continent outside the boreal forest. In Texas alone, grasslands covered two thirds of the state, with more than 470 native species. Virtually all of the Panhandle, nearly twenty million acres, was grass. In the spring, the carpet flowered amid the green, and as wind blew, it looked like music on the ground. To see a piece of it in 1926, even in winter dormancy, could delight a tomorrow man like Bam White, who loved sky and earth in endless projection. The temperature warmed just before dusk, and the sky boiled up, thunderheads coming out of the east. It was too early in the year yet for clouds to be throwing down lightning and hail, but it happened enough that people took precautions when warning signs appeared overhead. Bam fretted about his horses. They looked sad-eyed and road-worn. Like most cowboys in the High Plains, he preferred darker horses, chocolate-colored or leathery brown, on a belief that they were less likely to attract lightning. One of his horses was lighter, not quite beige, just light enough to bring a thunderbolt down on it. Bam had never actually seen a light-haired horse combust at the touch of lightning, but he had heard plenty of stories. A friend of his had seen a cow struck dead by a sky-spark. Bam looked around: there were no rock overhangs or little arroyos such as they had passed through up north.Well, hell what did those XIT cowboys used to do? If those boys could get through a thunder-boomer without shelter, Bam White could do the same. Everybody in Texas had a story about the XIT. It was the ranch that built the state capitol, the granddaddy of them all. Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, Texas wanted the biggest statehouse in the union, a palace of polished red granite. To pay for the new stone showpiece, the state offered up three million acres in the distant Panhandle to anybody willing to construct the building. After the tribes were routed, Charles Goodnight had moved a herd of 1,600 cattle down from Colorado to Palo Duro Canyon. The grass then was free; it attracted other nomadic Anglo beef-drivers and speculators from two continents. In 1882, a company out of Chicago organized the Capitol Syndicate, and this group of investors took title to three million acres in return for agreeing to build the capitol. It would cost about $3.7 million, which meant the land went for $1.23 an acre. The syndicate drew some big British investors into the deal, among them the Earl of Aberdeen and several members of Parliament. By then, the Great Plains cattle market was the talk of many a Tory cocktail hour. Books such as How to Get Rich on the Plains explained how any investor could double his money in five years. The ranch land was empty. No people. No bison. No roads. No farms. Just grass three million acres of it. "Those salubrious seasons at the end of the Eighties made that country appear a paradise," wrote one early rancher, Wesley L. Hockett. At dusk, when the sky burned pink against the expanse of sod, a cowboy could be moved to tears, it was so pretty. Much of the XIT was in the heart of the Llano Estacado, where the Comanche had roamed. And like the Comanche, the cowboys developed their own sign language to communicate over distances. The syndicate stocked the grassland with cattle, erected windmills in order to pump water up for the animals, and fenced it. Barbed wire was invented in 1874, and by the early 1880s ranchers were stringing it across the plains, closing off the free grass. In 1887, there were 150,000 head of cattle on the XIT ranch and 781 miles of fence. It was soon the biggest ranch in the world under fence. The XIT was lord of the Panhandle. Not just the landowner, but also the law. They formed vigilante posses to chase down people who encroached on the ranch or stole cattle, and spread poison to kill wolves and other animals with a taste for XIT calves. When railroad feeder lines came to the ranch, the cattle shipping points were made into towns, which brought merchants, ministers, and other hustlers of body and soul. It was a good life for a cowboy, earning about thirty dollars a month fixing fences, riding herd, eating chow at sunset. A black cowboy, or Mexican, had more trouble. A man everybody called Nigger Jim Perry was the lone black cow puncher on the XIT. "If it weren't for this old black face of mine," said Perry, "I'd be foreman." The XIT prohibited gambling, drinking of alcohol, and shooting anything without permission. Outside the ranch borders, little rail towns sprang up with a different set of laws. One of those was Dalhart, which was born in 1901 at the intersection of two rail lines, one going north to Denver, the other east to Liberal, Kansas. In Dalhart, an XIT cowboy could get a drink, lose a month's salary in a card game, and get laid at a shack known simply as the Cathouse. But even with the finest grass in the world, with 325 windmills sucking water up from the vast underground aquifer, with the elimination of predators, with several thousand miles of barbed wire, and with martial-law control over rustlers, the biggest ranch in Texas had trouble making a profit. The open range, on the neighboring plains states, was stocked with far too many cattle, causing prices to crash. The weather might display seven different moods in a year, and six of them were life-threatening. Droughts, blizzards, grass fires, hailstorms, flash floods, and tornadoes tormented the XIT. A few good years, with good prices, would be followed by too many horrid years and massive die-offs from drought or winter freeze-ups, making shareholders wonder what this cursed piece of the Panhandle was good for anyway. Bison have poor eyesight and tend to be clannish, but they are the greatest thermo-regulators ever adapted to the plains, able to withstand temperatures of 110 degrees in summer, and 30 below zero in winter. But cattle are fragile. The winter of 18851886 nearly wiped out cattle herds in the southern plains, and a second season of fatal cold the next year did the same thing up north. Cowboys said they could walk the drift line, where snow piled up along fences north of the Canadian River, for four hundred miles, into New Mexico, and never step off a dead animal. With the British investors pressing for a better return on their piece of unloved and nearly uninhabited Texas, the syndicate turned to real estate. The problem was how to sell land that only an herbivore with hooves could love. Parts of the XIT were scenic: little pastures near a spring, red rock and small canyons to break the ironing board of the High Plains. There was some timber in the draws, but not enough for fuel or building material. What fell from the sky was insufficient to grow traditional crops. And the rate of evaporation made what rain that did fall seem like much less. It takes twenty- two inches in the Panhandle to deposit the same moisture as fifteen inches would leave in the Upper Mississippi Valley. The native plants that take hold, like mesquite, send roots down as far as 150 feet. And then there was the larger image problem. Great American Desert. It was Stephen Long, trying to find something of value in the treeless wilderness, who first used those words in 1820, later printed on maps that guided schooners west. It would stay as cartographic fact until after the Civil War, when the Great American Desert became the Great Plains. Zebulon Pike, scouting the southern half of the Louisiana Purchase in 1806 for Thomas Jefferson, had compared it to the African Sahara in his report to the president. Jefferson was crushed. He feared it would take one hundred generations to settle the blank space on the map. It was a vast empty sea, invariably described as featureless and frightening by the Americans who traveled through it. "A desolate waste of uninhabited solitude," wrote Robert Marcy, after exploring the headwaters of the Red River. Marcy had the same opinion of the region as did Long, the influential American explorer who followed Pike. After conducting an extensive survey, Long wrote in 1820 the words that still make him seem unusually prophetic: "In regard to this extensive section of the country, I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence." The answer to the syndicate's problem was aggressive salesmanship. Why, this wasteland could be England or Missouri, if plowed in the right way. Brochures were distributed in Europe, the American South, and at major ports of entry to the U.S.: "500,000 acres offered for sale as farm homes" and cheap, as well, the land selling for thirteen dollars an acre. Twice a month, agents for the syndicate rounded up five hundred people and put them on a train from Kansas City for the Texas Panhandle to see for themselves. The train ride was free. Speculators who bought from the syndicate turned around and added to the claims. "Riches in the soil, prosperity in the air, progress everywhere. An Empire in the making!" was a slogan of W. P. Soash, a real estate man from Iowa who bought big pieces of the XIT and sold them off. "Get a farm in Texas while land is cheap where every man is a landlord!" To prove the agriculture-worthy potential of the Llano Estacado, the syndicate set up experimental farms, demonstrating to immigrants how they could make a go of it on the Texas .atlands. They worked with government men from the Department of Agriculture. Well, sure, it rained less than twenty inches a year, which was the accepted threshold for growing a crop without irrigation, but through the miracle of dry farming a fellow could turn this land to gold. Put a windmill in, and up comes water for your hogs, chickens, and garden. And dryland wheat, it didn't need irrigation. Just plant in the fall, when a little moisture would bring the sprouts up, let it go dormant in the winter, and then wait for spring rains to get the crop going again. Harvest in summer. Any three-toed fool could do it, the agents said. As for the overturned ground, use the dust for mulch, farmers were advised; it will hold the ground in place and keep evaporation down. That's what Hardy Campbell, the apostle of dry farming from Lincoln, Nebraska, preached and the government put a stamp on his philosophy through their agriculture office in the Panhandle. No nester was without Campbell's Soil Culture Manual, a how-to book with homilies that all but guaranteed prosperity. What's more, the commotion created by the act of plowing itself would bring additional rain, causing atmospheric disturbances. Rain follows the plow? Damn right! The Santa Fe Railroad printed an official-looking progress map, showing the rain line twenty inches or more, annually moving west about eighteen miles a year with new towns tied to the railroad. With scientific certainty, steam from the trains was said to cause the skies to weep. Seasoned XIT ranch hands scoffed at such claims; the demo projects were a scam, cowboys said. They warned anybody who would listen that the Panhandle was no place to break the sod. Dust mulch? How was that supposed to hold moisture in the ground, with the wind blowing steady at thirty clicks an hour? The land was high and cold, with little drainage, and nearly treeless in its entirety. As for rainfall, the average in the county was about sixteen inches a year, not enough, by any traditional standards, to sustain a crop. At Dalhart, the elevation was 4,600 feet. A blue norther would come down from Canada through the Rockies and shake a person to their bones. The Panhandle was good for one thing only: growing grass God's grass, the native carpet of plenty. Most of the land was short buffalo grass, which, even in the driest, most wind-lacerated of years, held the ground in place. This turf had supported the southern half of the great American bison herd, up to thirty million animals at one point. The best side is up, the cowboys said time and again for chrissakes don't plow it under. Nesters and cowboys hated each other; each side thought the other was trying to run the other off the land. Homesteaders were ridiculed as bonnet-wearing pilgrims, sodbusters, eyeballers, drylanders, howlers, and religious wackos. Cowboys were hedonists on horseback, always drunk, sex-starved. The cattle-chasers were consistent in one way, at least. They tried telling nesters what folks at the XIT had passed on for years, an aphorism for the High Plains: "Miles to water, miles to wood, and only six inches to hell." The syndicate had bondholders in London to satisfy. By 1912, the last of the XIT cattle were off the land, and the ground that was leveraged to build the state capitol of Texas had ceased to function as a working ranch. Four years later, Charlie Goodnight held what he called "the last buffalo hunt" on his ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. More than ten thousand people showed up to watch the old cowboy chase an imported buffalo, a limp choreography. When Bam White and his family crossed over into Texas in 1926, only 450,000 acres were unplowed of the original three-million-acre XIT.The family spent the next night in north Dallam County, a day's ride from Dalhart. The thunderheads had missed them, passing farther east. Bam White rose in the winter darkness and gave his horse team another pep talk. We're in Texas now, keep on a-going, one leg at a time. You got us outta Colorado. You got us outta Oklahoma. Now get us through Texas to Littlefield, and a new home. They had crossed into one of the highest parts of the High Plains, where the wind had its way with anything that dared poke its head out of the ground, and it was .atter even than Oklahoma. Lizzie White wondered again why anyone white, brown, or red would choose to live in this country, the coldest part of Texas. Even the half-moon, icy at night, looked more hospitable than this hard ground. As they said on the XIT, only barbed wire stood between the High Plains and the North Pole. The Whites arrived in Dalhart on February 26, 1926. Bam found a place to camp at the edge of town and took to fretting again. Littlefield was still 176 miles to the south. The family was down to the last of their dried food, and they didn't know a soul. It was not the first time a family with significant Indian blood had returned to the old treaty lands. Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache who had drifted back lived a shadowed existence, dressed like whites, going by names like "Indian Joe" and "Indian Gary." As long as they stayed largely invisible, nobody paid much attention to them. Indians were not citizens yet. They could be forcefully removed to a reservation. Any hint of their earlier presence was gone, erased for the new tomorrow. Dalhart had no history beyond the XIT; what came before was viewed as having little merit. "The northern Panhandle was settled by a group of fine pioneer people and its citizens are of the highest type of Anglo Saxon ancestry," the Dalhart Texan declared shortly after the Whites rolled into town. But the new citizens of this new town were refugees, each in their own way. Bam went to have a look around. Train whistles blew at regular intervals. The railroads were still offering bargain fares to lure pilgrims to the prairie, though the good land had been taken. The town looked like dice on a brown felt table, the houses wood-framed and bare-ribbed as tentative as a daydream. Dalhart's first residents had planted locust trees, but most of them did not last in the hard wind, between drought and freeze. Chinese elms were doing a little better. The town was birthed by railroad men and was never under the thumb of the XIT. Like the rest of the Panhandle, its frontier was now, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. While the northern plains were losing people disenchanted with the long winters and ruinous cycles of drought and freeze, the southern plains were in hormonal midadolescence. There was oil gushing and news of wildcatters making a killing spread far and wide. The oil drew a new kind of prospector to go with the nesters and wheat speculators tearing up the grassland. Nearly thirty towns were born in the Panhandle between 1910 and 1930. Much of Texas took its prohibition seriously. Not Dalhart. It took its whiskey seriously, in part because some of the finest corn liquor in America was coming out of the High Plains. Up north, in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, and Baca County, Colorado, farmers had been growing corn for whisk brooms, but then the vacuum cleaner, in just a few years, ruined the market for broomcorn. Prohibition saved the broomcorn farmers, making grain more valuable as alcohol than the dried stalks had ever been for sweeping. A single still near the Osteen family homestead up in Baca County was turning out a barrel of corn whiskey a day, every day, nearly every year of Prohibition. Some farmers made five hundred dollars a week. At the peak of Prohibition, five counties in a three-state region of the High Plains shipped fifty thousand gallons a week to distant cities. "This is a period of fast times," a Dalhart businessman, Jim Pigman, wrote in his diary, "and much drinking of poor liquor." Just a few strides from the railroad switch tower, Bam White came upon a curious sight: a two-story sanitarium. It was the only hospital for hundreds of miles. On one side of the sanitarium was a tobacco ad a big, red-and-white snorting bull promoting Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco. Inside was a specimen room, with pickled fetuses, tumors, an enlarged liver, goiters, and a heart. The liver had belonged to a saloonkeeper in the days before Prohibition. It was grayish green and huge, and served as a visual aid an example of what can happen to someone who poured too much corn whiskey down his gullet. Presiding over the sanitarium was a tobacco- spitting, black-bearded man of the South, Dr. George Waller Dawson. The Doc always wore a dark Stetson, though he was said to take it off during surgery, and kept a brass spittoon nearby for his tobacco habit. He chewed through child delivery and lung surgery, it didn't matter. His wife, Willie Catherine, was the finest-looking woman in the Panhandle. That wasn't just Doc Dawson's opinion; in 1923, she won a diamond ring as prize for being voted the most beautiful woman at a Panhandle Fourth of July celebration. "My Willie," the Doc called the missus. She had dark eyes, an aquiline nose, and a powerful taste for literature. Willie kept the accounting books of the sanitarium and also served as anesthesiologist. She was the only person who could run the solitary x-ray machine for a few hundred miles in any direction. The Doc and his Willie were always busy cutting open cowboys and splicing nesters back together after they had been sliced by barbed wire, thrown from a horse, or knocked down by a windmill pump. They patched bones, yanked gallstones, and cut away shanks of infected flesh from people who insisted on paying them with animals, live and dead. In one month alone, the Doc and Willie performed sixty-three operations. A Kentuckian, Dawson had come to Texas for his health. He had persistent respiratory problems and legs that would sometimes freeze up on him, a kind of paralysis that puzzled the Kentucky medical community. The High Plains was the cure. He arrived in 1907, planning to start a ranch and live off his investments. In time, he hoped to breathe like a normal man and lavish attention on the lovely Willie. But he lost nearly everything two years later in a market collapse. His second chance was found in the two-story brick building in Dalhart, well north of his ranch. He opened the sanitarium in 1912. By the late 1920s, Dr. Dawson intended to cut back on his medical work and try once more to make a go of it on the land. The money in farming was so easy, just there for the taking. Despite all his years of practicing medicine, the Doc had saved up very little for his retirement. The nest egg would be in the land. He had purchased a couple of sections and was going to try his luck at cotton or wheat. Wheat was supposed to be the simplest way to bring riches from the ground. Doc Dawson would take some time off from running the hospital and see if he could coax something from the Staked Plains to free him of the rubbing alcohol and the pickled organs. It was their last best chance, he told his family. Bam White walked past the sanitarium and on down Denrock, the main street of Dalhart. The cowboy passed the Felton Opera House, two stories tall with fine Victorian trim, then a clothing store, with window displays of new dress shirts and silk ties. This was Herzstein's; as far as anyone knew, they were the only Jews in Dalhart. Streetlights, with wicks that had to be lit every night, dangled from cords strung to poles. A bustle of people played cards and jawboned over grain prices inside a new-looking, yellow-brick hotel, the DeSoto. The DeSoto was first class: solid walnut doors, a bathtub and toilet in every room, along with a telephone. A guest could dial 126 and get a reservation to see a girl at the place just west of Dalhart. It didn't have a name, just the Number 126 house. Next door to the DeSoto was the moving picture establishment, the Mission Theater. None of Bam White's children had ever seen a movie. Crews came by with sprinklers to wet down the streets, but dust still kicked up with every carriage and car that passed by. The town felt somewhat tentative; a mighty breath or a twister could blow everything down, collapsing all the pretty painted sticks. Talking to folks, Bam White found out real quick who owned Dalhart. That would be Uncle Dick Coon, the well-fed gentleman sitting there at the DeSoto with his cards in one hand and a hand- rolled cigarette in the other. He owned the DeSoto, the Mission Theater, just about every business on Denrock. You watch Uncle Dick for just a few minutes, folks said, and you would see him flash a hundred-dollar bill from his pocket. Three months of cowboy wages pinched between two fingers. Bam White had never seen a hundred dollar bill till he came through Dalhart. The C-note was Uncle Dick's heater, his blanket. As a child, Dick Coon's family was often broke. The corrosive poverty hurt so much it defined the rest of his life. As long as Uncle Dick could touch his C-note, he had no fear in life. And he had certainly known fear. Dick Coon was fortunate to live through the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the worst single natural disaster in American history. He lost everything in Galveston but was never bitter. His life had been spared, while six thousand people lost theirs. Dick Coon didn't plan on getting rich in Dalhart; didn't even plan on staying in the High Plains. In 1902, he had been passing through Dalhart, making a train connection to Houston, when he fell under the spell of one of the syndicate's real estate agents. He heard enough to buy his own piece of the old XIT. The ranching went well, but the real money was in town building. Back from his tour of town, Bam White found Lizzie in a panic and the children looking at him like they'd just had the life scared out of them. What is it? Dead horse. Again? Dead. Check for yourself, daddy. Bam White's horse was flat on its side, the body cold, rotted teeth exposed. She was dead all right. Now Bam was without enough of a team to make it another step. The family had no means to buy another horse, and it had been hard enough traveling from Boise City to Dalhart. Well, then, it must be a sign, Bam said to the kids maybe he was born for this XIT country anyhow. There have got to be plenty of jobs in this new town, even on a gentleman's ranch. Marooned, Bam made his decision on the spot: the family would stay in Dalhart. A guy in town had told him about opportunities in the newly plowed fields. This town was going places. It had a shine, a face full of ambition. The fields were turning fast, making money for anybody with a pulse and a plow. The way White looked at Dalhart was the way Doc Dawson and Uncle Dick looked at their homes in the Panhandle: as the last best chance to do something right, to get a small piece of the world and make it work. The wanderer would settle in and see what the earth would bring him in what had been the world's greatest grassland.Copyright 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Excerpted from The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan
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