Spotlight Feature Article by Kirby Warnock
“We’re burning daylight. Let’s get on our horses and start moving.”
Warren was enjoying his coffee, but Derek had other ideas. They had to ride out through the canyon country to find some missing sheep for shearing. It was February and the shearers would be arriving tomorrow, and Derek wanted the missing ones in the pens so they would be clipped, too.
Warren wasn’t as agitated about it as Derek, mainly because he really did not care about sheep ranching, or sheep in general. “The only thing dumber than a sheep is the man who raises them,” he liked to crack. But Derek was paying him for a day’s work along with a meal or two, so he had headed out in the country to stay the night with Derek and Annie at the old ranch house then get up the next morning to find about 200 sheep and reunite them with the 2,300 others in the pens at the old ranch headquarters.
They were saddling up in the corral with three Mexican workers Derek had hired. Warren tied the “Texas T” knot on his cinch then crawled up into the saddle. Once atop his horse he scanned the Pecos County landscape. “It used to be dangerous to ride a horse out into this country,” he thought. “If the Comanches caught you out in the open, you were a dead man. Now all we worry about is getting back in time for supper.”
Derek and the three Mexicans were riding up behind him as they climbed out of the canyon. In the distance they could see a patch of white, indicating a group of sheep huddled up against the morning chill.
“Typical,” said Warren. “A sheep is born looking for a place to die.”
In many ways he felt a bit sorry for Derek because the man had no choice. He had inherited the sprawling Pecos County sheep ranch back in 1936 when his father, Harley, was thrown from his horse and landed head first on a mesquite grub. His grandfather, Price, had come out here in the 1800s and homesteaded four sections at a time until he amassed a fairly large spread. It was made easier by building a “house” about the size of a phone booth on wooden skids so they could hitch up a mule to it and drag it to another four sections every four years. (The state of Texas required a “dwelling” to be built at the epicenter of the four sections, and you had to “live’ there for four years.) It was a novel approach to the letter of the law.
By now they had approached the missing sheep, several ewes and their lambs, and were pushing them towards the pens. Old Juan and his team of shearers would be driving into the ranch in their converted school bus the next day. They had phoned Annie that the group would be leaving the Puckett ranch that evening.
Warren was always struck by how much dust 2,500 sheep could churn up. Whenever he got home, Lois, his wife, had to turn all of his pockets inside out to get his clothes clean. He headed up to the ranch house to eat the lunch that Annie had pre- pared: Pinto beans with bacon, flour tortillas and some poblano chiles.
As they sat down to eat, Warren was struck by how old Derek looked.
“This country takes a lot out of a man,” Derek said, as if he had read Warren’s mind. “The sun and the dry air cracks your skin, and the isolation is rough on women.” He trailed off as he looked out the window, pulling his iced tea up to his lips.
Pecos County may have been dry and rugged, but it was pretty good sheep country. The old maxim was that a man could make money off of sheep twice, when he sheared them and when he sold them. Now it was 1962, and a lot hadn’t changed much, except the advent of television and better phone service.
There still weren’t many women west of the Pecos, but there were more than in 1936. Warren had met Lois on a trip to Houston for the 1951 Bluebonnet Bowl. She was waitressing in the restaurant where he dined and he was “struck by the thunder- bolt,” at the sight of her. A long-distance romance went on for only three months until neither of them could stand it any longer, so they got married. She rode in his car to his place outside of Fort Stockton and they settled in, as best they could.
But for an attractive girl from the big city, there were certain things that Pecos County and good Mexican food couldn’t fill, and Lois was getting restless. Warren was going to have a lot more on his plate than just pinto beans in the coming weeks.