A Texas Ranching Adventure: Coping With Neighbors
“But who are you married to?” the older woman asked again.
“The German across the road,” I said for the third time.
She shook her head and frowned.
“He’s my husband,” I insisted.
She stared at me. “But . . .”
She just couldn’t believe that I, a white woman, was married to a German.* I had stopped by for two reasons: since I wanted to meet the locals and because there was an eggs-for-sale sign in the yard. Our hens hadn’t started laying yet.
I couldn’t know then that her lack of civility had set the tone for most of the neighbors who surrounded us.
We had pastureland on three sides of our rectangular property, while the farm-to-market road was on the fourth side. Our Mrs. Disbeliever, I will call her, was a woman who’d inherited 1,000 acres off our back side. A place stocked by nature with coyotes and by the Disbeliever with hunters. She and her husband had lived partially off hunting lease income for years.
When I got back to our house, I was alarmed to hear gun shots. It sounded like they were aiming right over my head. I ducked and ran to the house.
The next day, I called the sheriff’s office. I told the deputy who answered that my husband had gone to talk to these hunters, three of whom had even trespassed onto our property to hunt (from Disbeliever land). I said that my husband had also recently seen a bunch of hunters just over the fence from us (also on Disbeliever land) drinking heavily and practicing with sub-machine guns. The deputy asked exactly where our property was located. I explained and added, “Of course I’m worried, I’m even pregnant. He laughed. “Oh, okay!” he said, with a tone of oh, a hysterical pregnant woman. “Well,” he said gently, “if those hunters come on your property again, you give us a call. But if they’re on a neighbor’s land, we can’t do a thing. That’s private property.”
We hoped for better relationships with other folks.
The Low Profilers
Mr. Short Border
There was one neighbor whose mobile home was visible from the farm to market road. My husband Jay called him and was invited over. Jay mostly remembers his thick purple upholstery and that the man walked the fence-line with him to delineate the property line on the east side of us. It turned out this man only shared a short boundary with us, which was probably safer for us. A friend in town told us this about Mr. Short Border: he had a last name widespread in that country but it was rumored that he had burned down his house twice for the insurance money. Our friend also warned us that Short Border was famous for taking his neighbors to court—about anything and everything. It was said he counted on people not wanting to go to court, and settling. “Watch out: if this guy thinks you have some money, he’ll try to get some of it, drum up a phoney case against you!”
We ignored this advice and now and then stopped to say hello to Short Border. Though his truck was often there, a dog barked, and sometimes we even heard movement inside, no one ever answered the door and we never saw him again. His mobile home burned a third time while we were living there.
My husband briefly met the neighbor to the west of us whose land was overgrown in cactus. The man seemed perfectly nice but soon he disappeared without a trace. A friend from town told us that Mr. West spent a lot of time in prison. He was a known drug dealer.
Then there were the goat rustlers.
The Rodeo family, as I’ll call them, were also infamous: excellent horse trainers, both parents and kids, they wore a nervous, always-on-the-lookout expression. Mr. Rodeo was known for writing hot checks and selling goats that didn’t belong to him down at the local livestock auction. They rented land along our east side where they lived in an old house without a sewage system. My husband learned this fact when he took the Rodeos a loaf of home-baked bread and saw the trickle of water-and-more flowing downhill from their house. Finding no one at home, Jay left the bread on the table
The next day, he walked back to introduce himself and tell them he’d left the loaf as a good neighbor gesture. Unfortunately, as Jay walked up, the older teenager was looking in the back of a car; the teen was startled and jerked up, hitting his head hard on the hatchback. “Who are you?” he shouted. Jay explained and apologized but the boy was very angry. He said he was about to take his younger brother to school, that he was the one who did that, and they were already late. And the look on his face was so protective of his younger brother, so poor and desperate and neglected, his expression said everything without words.
A few months later, we noticed eight to ten goats were missing out of the pasture bordering the Rodeo land. Walking the fence line, we found the fence-wire cut at the end closest to the Rodeo house.
From across the farm-to-market road came two more neighbors: large Anatolian guard dogs. They were employed by the rancher across the road to guard his flock of sheep. The dogs slept in the pasture by their flock, ate there out of a feeder, and rarely saw a human. We met the two dogs as we returned to our property one day. As we drove over the crossing, we saw two fluffy white animals ahead in the middle of Home Pasture. They seemed to be playing with something. One was leaping and batting something with his paw; the other lying near and rolling over. We got closer. They were playing with a downed goat. Jay leaped out of the truck and ran at them shouting. They romped off straight towards home. The goat was chewed on and too far gone. Now we knew what had happened to another goat we’d found dead of similar injuries.
We called the rancher whose property the dogs had retreated to. He was Mr. Integrity, who came over the very next day, respectfully parked his truck at our house, and walked in the searing heat across our pasture to meet Jay who was grubbing out unwanted mesquite trees by shovel in the back lot. Mr. Integrity was a stand-up-straight, look-you-in-the-eye, shake-your-hand man. “I got your call,” he said. “I’m real sorry about this. I couldn’t trust those dogs anymore either. If they’d attack other herds, eventually they’d turn on their own. I’ve shot them.” He offered to pay for the killed goats, but Jay suggested they call it even, since the rancher had lost the two dogs. Integrity eyed Jay’s tools, the hard earth and the pile of uprooted mesquite. “Listen, Jay,” he said, “if you ever have more time than money, I’ve got a lot of mesquite to grub out on my place. You’ll have a job!”
The most forbidding neighbor was Mr. Wile E. Coyote himself.
We heard the coyote howls at night and then by dawn found three goats that had been killed and nearby, a few paw prints in the soil. We went to the house and called Bill Cole. He was the local trapper who was paid a very small salary by the county and membership fees of local property owners. Bill was a man from another time.
“I grew up in Colorado,” Bill said. “We farmed till we went broke. Then we worked in the mines, made some money and went back to farming till we went broke again.” He and his brother had slept in the un-insulated attic on cots, one covered in an old wool blanket, the other by the grandfather’s old WWI army coat. “By morning,” he said, “our exhalations would start melting that foot thick layer of ice just feet above us on the roof, and drip drip on us. That was our alarm clock. Time to get up. We worked all day and ate what we caught. Squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, rattlesnake. Anything ‘cept armadillo—too fat, and possum—I couldn’t face it.” He encouraged our broad palate.
When he joined the army, he thought he was on vacation. “They fed and clothed us,” he said. “Never had so much in my whole life.” From his teenaged years, he’d worked in the mines, construction, rodeo—he could lasso real well and was a horse expert. He could track animals, and train dogs to help him.
We told him about the Anatolian herd dogs from next door. He shook his head. “That rancher did the right thing. Once I was training a dog, that I told to stay by my jeep.” (Bill had an old open jeep contraption.) “And I went off to track. Came back and the dog was gone. I sat and waited for that damn dog two hours. When he came back, I shot him soon’s I saw him. You know those dogs won’t never be no good.”
Over time Wile E. Coyote killed more and more of our goats.
Bill Cole eventually tracked our local coyote over the fence a mile down into a huge canyon on Mrs. Disbeliever’s property, where the coyote had a den. Bill said there were two, a mating pair. He said coyotes would go a long way to hunt, and that down in the southern part of the state, large packs of coyotes were attacking livestock. So he put out some snares at the point of fence where he knew they were crossing: he’d seen their fur caught on the wire and smelled their urine mark.
Bill struck up a friendship with us. He liked our stubbornness, our tenacity, and that we worked with horses. He’d come out to check his snares and always knock on our door to chat. He brought his lovely, cheerful wife to meet us, and sometimes ate meals with us. We learned Bill had to chew slowly, as he only had teeth on one side of his mouth. He told us that he was a trapper because after a surgery that removed two-thirds of his colon, he wasn’t strong enough to work his old jobs anymore.
He taught Jay to lasso, and taught us about horses. After our stallion got his privates cut up badly by standing over a barbed wire fence, Bill explained how to clean the wound. “Once my best horse got into barbed wire and scraped open a huge flap of skin on his side, leaving the flap connected by only a few inches. Every day I’d open the flap up and rinse the raw wound real good with a water hose, to clean it, and so it wouldn’t get reattached unevenly leaving some spots to fester. A wound needs oxygen. And day by day, that flap and flesh grew together just a little further—until it was completely healed. When the horse hair grew over it, you couldn’t see the scar at all.”
One day Bill the trapper knocked on our door with good news.
“I’m supposed to take the carcasses in–what I trap,” he said. “But I know you like to tan hides, and he’s got so many of yours. You deserve his hide.”
Jay skinned that coyote. That was one big luxurious fur fed up on the livers of 37 goats.
Bill Cole helped us survive in that place. A rough country, a rough life. A place that forced man and beast to look for innovative ways to make a living.
To read the first Texas Ranching Adventure, click here.
*Through friends and our own observations, we learned that since WWII this region had had a deep division between the descendants of earlier settlers who were German and those who were not. This was the case in spite of the fact that the sons of local German-Americans had all fought for the U.S. in that war.