Home on the Range
City folks dream of owning a ranch for fun. But for gil stoner of uvalde, the dream is to find a way to make a living on the land his family has worked for 112 years.
THE MARE KNEW SHE WAS BEING WATCHED. She stood in a corner of her stall and pretended not to notice the man leaning on his forearms against an iron fence, examining her every move, but her swishing tail and tense ears gave her away. That’s what the man was looking for: clues to her disposition. His name was Gil Stoner, and he was to be her trainer for the next two months. She was new to the Stoner Ranch, two thousand hardscrabble acres of rocks and brush on the rim of the Hill Country northwest of Uvalde, and Gil was doing what he always does when a client sends him a new horse to train: spend a lot of time just watching. He can evaluate its physique in a matter of moments. The hard part is evaluating its mind.
“Horses aren’t the brightest animals in the world,” he said, “but they have unbelievable feel. And they’re willing. They’ll do whatever they’re able to do. What I do all day is try to be just a little bit smarter than a horse.”
At 37, Gil Stoner has spent most of his life figuring out horses. He was riding at the age of 2, roping at the age of 4. For as long as he can remember, he has wanted to live out his time on earth on the family ranch, as his father is doing, as his father’s father did, as his great-grandmother did, as Stoners have been doing for 112 years.
But time may be running out on families like the Stoners—small ranchers who cling stubbornly to the land they were born on. Ranching is a marginal business in the best of times; when Gil was majoring in ranch management at Texas A&M, he learned that the rule of thumb for investing in livestock was a 4 percent return. You have to own a lot of livestock, and a lot more acres than the Stoners do, for 4 percent to amount to much. Today, fewer and fewer ranching families actually live on their land and raise their children there; more and more are leasing their property and moving to town, where life is more comfortable and work is less demanding. You have to have an unshakable faith in the intangible values and rewards of ranch life to keep going, and Gil does. But he knows that if the Stoner Ranch has a future, it won’t involve traditional ranching.
Cattle and oil, which have supported successful Texas ranches for most of this century, have never played a role at the Stoner Ranch. The land is, and always has been, sheep and goat country; beef cattle can’t make it here. As for oil, the total production in the history of Uvalde County is a minuscule 1,814 barrels, not a drop of which has occurred since 1986. During the oil boom someone actually leased the mineral rights to the Stoner Ranch, but nothing ever came of it. About the only option left is horses.
The Nueces River Canyon, though, is not exactly horse country. It is too far from the big cities, where well-heeled professionals buy horses for their kids and dream of owning a place like the Stoner Ranch—not for working, but for relaxing on weekends. It is also too dry, even in years of normal rainfall. Now, when the Stoner Ranch has received just two inches of rain from early November to late August, the land is so parched that not a green clump of grass can be seen. Dust seems to be suspended in the air. It adheres to your lips, gets under your hat, settles onto your clothes, and explodes in clouds when you pat Tex, the ranch’s senior Border collie. Horse ranching in the Nueces River Canyon doesn’t mean a big breeding operation with lush pastures, handsome stables, a big staff, and a gleaming white house. For Gil, it means taking in other people’s horses to train, having a spec horse or two of his own, doing all the work himself, and living in a rock cottage built by his grandfather in 1940, where only the living room is air-conditioned and he and his wife, Amy, got an evaporative cooler for their bedroom just last year.
Gil trains horses, but he doesn’t like being called a trainer, which sounds too much like an employee. “Call me a horseman,” he said, never taking his eyes off the mare. finally, she swung her neck around and inspected him with her left eye. Before her stood someone a little short of six feet tall and cowboy-skinny. He wore jeans, chaps, and a blue long-sleeved work shirt that was torn and faded from hard use. His longish face and high cheekbones were Stoner family traits, but his most striking feature was a pair of unsentimental, appraising eyes. His wide-brimmed white straw hat seemed to be part of his body, so seldom did it come off; three days would pass before I discovered that he had short black hair. Apparently he passed the mare’s inspection, because she walked over to him in that slow, ambling way horses have that indicates approval. Gil allowed her to stop and pick her position before he reached between the rails and scratched her belly. “I’ve found this spot that she likes,” he said. The mare smacked her lips, over and over, as if she were chewing gum.
Together they made the most durable of Western images, the man and his horse. But it was a variation on the old theme. They were two of a kind, really, both looking for a way to survive in the modern world. The mare was no good for racing and no good for breeding; her owner wanted Gil to make her into a pole and barrel horse that his daughter could ride in rodeos. The mare’s quarter horse skills are no longer in demand outside of the entertainment business. Gil too is in the entertainment business; when he isn’t training horses, he’s holding weekend clinics to teach kids how to ride or rope. He has taken in campers, backpackers, even a Belgian tourist who wanted to learn the Western style of riding. Anything to hold on to the land.
THE STONER RANCH EXTENDS eastward from the Nueces in a rectangle, first over a mesquite-choked plain, then up and across a line of hills that bring an abrupt end to the river valley. This is not the Hill Country as most Texans know it—that benign and beloved land of gentle slopes covered with scrub oak and cedar, broad plateaus, and streams that flow swift and cold and clear over limestone bedrock. Here the Nueces runs slow and sluggish, when it runs at all; occasionally it disappears beneath gravel beds, turning its bottom into a desert wash. The mouth of the canyon, about ten miles south of the Stoner Ranch, is one of Texas’ great geographical crossroads: the intersection of the brush country, the Hill Country, and the Chihuahuan Desert. Invader plants have forced their way into the lower canyon and taken over the land—cursed species found nowhere else in the Hill Country, like the sharp-toothed sotol and ground-hugging, clawlike lechuguilla. This is rough country, magnificent in its unyielding harshness. The hills are like mountains in miniature: their flanks precipitous, their upper elevations encircled by vertical bands of rock, their crowns barren. Indeed, the first settlers in the canyon called them mountains, and mountains they are still called today. “You’d call ’em mountains too,” Gil told me, “if you had to climb ’em or ride up ’em.”
He was showing me around the ranch in a red pickup. Actually we were going to see only the part closest to the river. The back pastures, amounting to two thirds of the property, have been leased to a neighboring ranch for grazing since 1982. A hunting lease covers the same acreage and brings in more money than the grazing lease, which is a good indication of the suprem-acy of recreation over agriculture these days. Altogether the leased land generates less than $20,000 a year, and Gil was worried about the future. “We may not have a grass lease next year,” he said. “What are we going to lease them? Rocks?”
The part of the ranch occupied by the Stoners includes the riverfront, two houses, a barn area for the horses, and some very unpastoral pastureland, where Red Stoner, Gil’s father, keeps a flock of sheep. He lives in the rock house with Gil and Amy; Gil’s mother, Robbie, lives in the older frame house near the river. When Gil was in the third grade, Robbie decided to take all three children—Gil, his twin brother, Tom, and his sister, Jamie—to Houston because of concern about dyslexia in the family. Red didn’t want her to go, and of course, he had to stay. The boys came back to the ranch on weekends and for summers—“They knew our first names on that Greyhound bus,” Gil told me—and returned for good when they were in high school. Gil went from a sophomore class of 2,000 students to a junior class of 37. Robbie, though, stayed in Houston as a nursing instructor. When she retired, she moved into the other house.
Gil stopped the pickup on the river-front. We were in a grove of thick-trunked pecans, the tree that gave the river its name (“nueces” is Spanish for “nut”). But because of the drought, there would be no nut crop this year. He pointed to a bare patch of earth, a clearing between two groves of trees. “You’re not supposed to see the ground out here,” he said. “Even the weeds wouldn’t grow this year. If you see anything that’s still green, it’s poisonous.”
Earlier this summer the well by the ranch house went dry—the first time that had ever happened. Gil and Amy had to haul buckets of springwater from the river by truck until they could get the well deepened from 45 feet to 85 feet. “Drought is hard on everybody,” Gil said. “The horses don’t want to work. You can see deer and jackrabbits out in the middle of the day looking for food.”
We had stopped, he told me, at the place where he and Amy had gotten married two years ago. Amy, who is ten years younger than Gil, had already given me the details. She had grown up in Uvalde and moved to Austin after graduating from high school. Three days later she came home. She met Gil at a restaurant—her date had invited Gil to sit with them—and again a year later at a dance. The first thing she noticed when he asked her to dance was that his foot was in a cast. The second thing she noticed was that it didn’t slow him down. When they got engaged, Amy’s mother said that she had always known that Amy was born to live on a ranch because she loved animals so much. At the wedding, Amy arrived by horse-drawn carriage and Gil rode in on his horse.
Today the area is a campsite used by visitors, some invited, some uninvited. “People come right up the river with their four-wheel drives,” Gil said. “They come up here drinking beer, and each mile they go, they get a little smarter. They know their rights, but they won’t respect mine. They set up camp in the river and cross my fence. Once they were giving some of my campers a hard time, and I came down and asked them to leave. One fella said, ‘I don’t think you’re big enough to make me.’
“He was right—I wasn’t. I went back to the house and called the deputy sheriff. I told him, ‘Nobody is going to talk like that to me on my own land. You better get out here. I know where my gun is.’
“It breaks my heart,” he said, “to see this beautiful land get trashed up.”
ANNA LOUISA WELLINGTON STONER wasn’t so taken with the land when she first saw it at the age of 24. She and her husband, William Clinton Stoner, had come to the Nueces River Canyon from Victoria in 1881, looking for a dryer, healthier climate. Traveling by wagon with their two young children, they crossed the property that would one day bear the family name—and they regarded it and the rest of the lower canyon as the worst land they had seen on their journey. The land improved as they continued upriver, and for four months they stayed with another family, living in a tent while Clinton looked for a place of his own and hunted wild game for his family to eat. Once they dined on bear. Clinton considered moving to Kerrville or Bandera but eventually decided to head farther up the Nueces into Edwards County, of which the Texas Almanac had written a few years earlier, “Very few, if any, have had the temerity to try to live there.” In the 1880 census the county had a thousand square miles but just 266 people.
Clinton moved his family onto vacated land that had a log house, a springhouse, a smokehouse, and a garden. Who the original occupants were or why they abandoned the homestead is unknown, although there were ample reasons for them to leave: renegade Indians (the area wasn’t secured until 1882), outlaws and other undesirables who had retreated into the remote upper reaches of the Nueces, and the lack of nearby towns or adequate roads. In December 1882 Clinton made the arduous journey to Uvalde to meet visiting relatives arriving on the newly built railroad. The weather was warm and he disregarded Anna’s advice to take a coat; sure enough, a norther blew through and he caught a bad cold, which settled into his lungs. Thirteen months later he was dead, struck down by pneumo-nia and overwork. He left Anna a little money, some hogs, around five hundred goats—and pregnant. Her seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son had to do the ranch work while she took care of the baby, who was born six weeks after Clinton’s death and contracted infantile paralysis. Thieves preyed on the new widow, stealing her livestock. That summer, Anna decided to look for land down-river in more settled country, and in October 1884 she bought 320 acres, half a square mile, on the Nueces—the beginning of the Stoner Ranch. She would live on the land for another 69 years, until 1953, when she died at the age of 96.
It is rare for so many details to be known about a pioneer family, but Anna was a prolific correspondent. She wrote to her mother and brother back in Victoria, and they kept each other’s letters. When Anna’s mother came to live with her after Clinton got sick, the letters were united in a single collection, which Anna kept in a trunk. A devastating flood in 1913 swept the house away, but the trunk was saved, its contents covered with silt but still readable. Anna wrote letters into her nineties, using a magnifying glass to aid her eyesight. Her granddaughter donated the letters to Baylor University, and they became the subject of a book, Letters by Lamplight, by a graduate student named Lois Meyers. If anyone wonders why Gil chooses to live a life that most city folk would consider desperately hard and isolated, the answer must start with his great-grandmother Anna.
She was under no illusion about the fecundity of the country. In her first letter home, while she and Clinton were living in a tent, she wrote her mother, “This part of the canyon is very pretty, but we thought of all the God forsaken places on earth, the part we came over to get here was the worst.” Even the better land, where they were living temporarily, “looks as if it wouldn’t feed a goose to the acre.” Her description of the Nueces canyon would do it justice today: “I just tell you,” she wrote her mother, “if you will cover the whole face of the earth with low thorn bushes that will average as high as chaparral down there & put bare mountains and rocks all through it, you will about have it.” Clinton’s father came from Illinois to visit them and was so dismayed by the inhospitable conditions that he offered his son 52 fertile acres, animals, and farm implements to move back to Illinois. Anna’s brother was equally unimpressed. He wrote his mother that the land couldn’t sustain cattle or sheep, but “for goats, rattlesnakes, and rabbits, it is the finest place I ever saw in my life.…Some people here pretend to think that this is a heaven on earth, but they will all offer to sell at one dollar or rent their land at two cents per acre.”
Yet she stayed after Clinton’s death, probably because she had nowhere better to go—certainly not back to Victoria. Evidently something in the family history distressed her. “Be up & stirring,” she once wrote her brother. “You know what the past has been & what the present is now. Make the future something better. We have all depended too much upon what others said, thought, & did, that has been a family failing with us…I couldn’t see it at one time, but now I can & I have concluded that God hates a fool & lazy person, so I have determined not to be either any longer.”
On her new land, Anna managed to make a living by raising goats and clipping their mohair, selling coonskins, and gathering pecans. In time she and her son Thomas Royal were able to add to the ranch until it stretched far back into the steep, forbidding hills that form the divide between the Nueces and the Frio. Still, by Hill Country standards, the Stoner Ranch was small—one that might support a single family but not a clan. Children grew up, left, wanted to be bought out by siblings who stayed. Red Stoner took over from Thomas Royal, his father, in 1960, and it took him nearly two decades to get out of debt incurred in a buyout of his brother. Eventually, Red sold off eight hundred acres on the east side of the ranch and land he owned personally that encompassed Round Mountain, the only freestanding butte in the Nueces River Canyon. But as hard as times have been for recent generations of Stoners, at least it used to be possible to make a living by ranching. Today, drought, isolation, and low livestock prices make it hard even for the big ranches to survive. The federal government has ended its subsidy of mohair and made it illegal to hire undocumented Mexican immigrants, who for decades made up the labor force in the South Texas ranch country. Gil knows that the odds are against him. But they were against Anna too.
A BLACK IRON SILHOUETTE OF A MAN on horseback marks the entrance to the Stoner Ranch off lightly traveled Texas Highway 55. Recently a second sign has joined the first. Made of wood, with a small rope looped around the perimeter, it reads: “Stoner Ranch—Founded 1884. Primitive campsites * Cabin * fish * Swim * Tube * Hike * Bike * Canoe * Birding.” This is ranching in the nineties: The money lies in rounding up people, not livestock.
The people Gil had rounded up on this Saturday morning in mid-August were two boys from a San Antonio suburb. They had arrived the night before, bringing their own horses, and would spend the weekend at the ranch learning how to throw a rope and chasing the Western dream. Weekends are no different from any other days for Gil; they are workdays, sunrise to sunset and after.
The dirt road from the main highway ran through the brush for a little while, then dipped down to cross the Nueces at water level. I sped up, stuck my arm out the window, and felt the cool spray of the spring water. The Stoner Ranch began across the river. My instructions were to drive to the barn, which is two hundred yards east of the ranch house. It turned out to be more of a large tin shed than a classic wood barn, and it was part of a complex that included stalls for the six horses Gil had taken in to train, a round training pen about fifty feet across, and an arena for roping. Gil, Amy, and two boys in their midteens were clustered around a bale of hay lying on bare ground. The hay was a metaphorical cow, and though it was stationary, it would prove to be sufficiently elusive for Gil’s students.
“This is a dangerous, dangerous piece of equipment,” Gil said, brandishing his rope. “If you don’t do it right, you can get tangled up. You won’t have much of a chance before I can get to you with a dull knife.”
The boys, named Cody and Travis, watched him intently as he demonstrated the steps of roping. Approach. Swing. Throw. Jerk the slack tight. Throw off. Gil walked toward the bale, lifted his right arm so that his hand was near his right ear, gave the rope three twirls in a descending arc pointed at the front end of the bale, and let the rope uncoil out of his hand, like a rattlesnake striking. It landed true, draped over the far end of the bale. He pulled it tight, giving his hand a quarter turn counterclockwise, and moved his forearm out to the right to prevent the rope from becoming entangled with his imaginary horse. It looked as simple, and as impossible, as a perfect golf swing.
Gil was teaching the boys calf roping, in which the object is to toss a rope around the neck, but his best event is team roping, in which he aims for the horns and his partner aims for the heels. Team ropers are rated from one to seven and compete against their peers. Pros are sevens. Gil is a six. In 1993 he won the state championship in his division and with it a $6,000 prize and a fancy horse trailer. In smaller rodeos, though, there are fewer divisions and sixes usually have to compete against the pros, who can afford the top horses and the entry fees. At one time Gil’s ambition was to go on the rodeo circuit as a roper. But you need a sponsor or a patron or independent wealth to be able to make it as a professional, and Gil was oh-for-three. Still, he has enough of a reputation regionally that he has been holding roping clinics for five years.
The boys stood at opposite ends of the bale and took turns trying to rope it. Gil barked out instructions: “Stop! Your loop is too big… . Go right at him, like a snake would… . You’ve got to get more speed on it… . No, no, no! Stay forward. Don’t step back… . Don’t drop your elbow. You’re going with your body first. Go with your arm first.” In ordinary conversation Gil has a matter-of-fact tone with little emotion or inflection, but when he is working, with horses or with people, he is in command mode.
Cody was the first to catch on. He was the taller and leaner of the two, and he seemed more at home in the country than Travis did. When his rope caught a corner of the bale and stuck, he looked up for approval. “Yeah!” cheered Amy, who was sitting on a cut log, her chin resting on her hands, her long auburn hair flowing out behind her whenever an occasional breeze kicked up. Travis missed again. “Close, close, close,” said Gil, generously. Another half an hour passed before Travis hit three in a row. That was good enough for Gil. “Let’s go to the arena,” he said. “You’ve got to ride right too.”
Red Stoner was waiting for us at the arena. He is 78 years old and even lankier than Gil, with a long, long face, thick eyebrows, and weathered skin. His nickname could have come from his hair, mostly gray now but still flecked with color, or his ruddy complexion. He smoked Pall Malls incessantly, using a cigarette holder, and never once coughed. I had met him on an earlier visit, indoors, where he seemed old and weary, his eyes opaque and his hearing poor, but outdoors it was a different story: He was active, agile, and keenly observant. While the boys were roping the bale, he had maneuvered thirteen steers into a chute, where he could release them one at a time for the boys to chase. They were small Mexican cattle—four-hundred-pounders, tough and wiry, that Gil keeps for roping practice—and they crowded up against each other, ducking their heads and horns under the legs of the steers in front of them, bawling their complaints.
Red took a long look at the boys riding in on their horses. “I think we’re going to have horse trouble,” he said to me. “Those horses are overfed and underexercised.”
We had horse trouble. Travis’ mount wouldn’t enter the U-shaped area next to the chute, known as the box. The horse acted as if he had never seen cattle before, and maybe he hadn’t. He wouldn’t even look at them. The more he balked at going into the box, the tighter Travis pulled the reins, causing him to back up. “No, no, no!” Gil shouted. “Keep him moving forward. Turn him.” When Travis finally pulled left on the reins, the horse turned grudgingly, fighting it all the way. Gil told Travis to take him out into the middle of the arena and keep him going left. The horse gratefully left the box and went into a circle. One circle. Then he ran off to the right. “No!” Gil yelled again. “Don’t let him do what he wants to do. Make him do what you want him to do. Keep him going left until I tell you to stop.”
Cody was having trouble too. Gil walked over to talk to Red. “This isn’t going to work,” he said. “These horses need to get rid of some energy.” The roping was over for the morning; Gil and the boys were going into the hills on horseback. I remembered something he had told me a few days earlier, on my first visit to the ranch. He had just finished training a filly, a session during which he stood in the center of the round pen and directed it to trot in a circle just by lifting an arm. “Horses don’t get ridden like they used to,” he said. “Almost every horse I get in here, I have to start by undoing people’s mistakes. A horse isn’t made like a human being. In nature they run in herds. They have long skinny legs and eyes on the sides of their heads because they’re prey animals, and you have to convince them that you’re not a predator. Most horses either fear people or don’t respect them enough. Whatever’s wrong, it’s always the human’s fault.”
“DO YOU WANT TO SEE THE BACK PASTURE?” Red asked me. A friend named Carl had dropped by to watch the roping and when the session had come to its sudden end, he had offered to give Red a hand with some fence mending on the leased acreage. As we got under way, I noticed that Carl was pressing the driver’s door shut with his left arm. The four-wheel-drive truck looked and sounded as if it wouldn’t do twenty miles an hour on a good day, but that was about eighteen more than we could use on the road that ascended the hills. It was all rock—no dirt at all. First it was scraped bedrock, which in places rose up in ledges higher and more steeply angled than the meanest speed bumps imaginable. The truck reared up until the hood blocked the view of the ground. Near the summit, when there was a steep drop-off to our right, the road surface changed to loose rocks the size of tennis balls, which were so prone to shifting that they sounded like Rice Krispies as they snapped, crackled, and popped beneath the wheels.
On the other side of the ridgeline, we entered a narrow canyon cut by a creek that was as dry as the moon; water for the livestock had to be pumped over the hills from a well near the river. Brush closed in on the road. Red told us that long ago the land had been cleared by wetbacks. “I know I’m not supposed to use that word,” he allowed, “but do you know a more descriptive one? They aren’t aliens and they oughtn’t to be illegal. In my experience, I’ve only known one Mexican who came here to do mischief. The rest came here to better themselves. They were good for this country. They did a lot of range improvement that a small rancher can’t afford to have done today. Nobody complained until they went to the urban areas and began working in jobs that paid more money.”
The road ended in a bowl whose only opening was behind us, the creek’s escape to the Nueces. We were surrounded by highlands—off to the left, ridges of gray limestone, and off to the right, the highest hills I had yet seen, two of them topped by great domes of rock. Cedar occupied the lower slopes but never the upper, and the extent of its advance was as linear as a timberline in the Rockies. On top of the ridges the only thing that grew was sotol, and I could see the blooms of its tall stalks outlined against the sky. It was an extraordinary place, marred only by the sickly yellow tint of much of the vegetation, the color of impending death.
Red and Carl had come to repair a livestock pen. Normally this would be the lessee’s responsibility, but a clause in the lease allowed the Stoners to use the area if the lessee had fallen behind on his payments, which he had. Gil’s brother, who lives in Hondo and works in San Antonio, was keeping a few cattle on the land, and the pen’s sagging fence needed to be strengthened in case the Stoners had to round them up. Red grabbed a fifty-pound sack of feed from the truck bed as easily as if it were a pillow and poured its contents on the ground to keep the cattle occupied while the two men worked. He put on heavy gloves, unrolled the wire fencing, and yanked it repeatedly until it was taut around the trees and cedar posts. Then he used the smaller pieces of wire to tie the new fencing to the old. He bent over, squatted down, stepped spryly over low points in the fences. Carl was at least a quarter of a century his junior, but when it came to work, they were peers.
The two men took no water breaks and said almost nothing to each other for more than an hour. It was too hot, and the work was too hard, for conversation. Midway through, Red said, “Well, it’s looking a little better.” “Yeah,” Carl answered. “It’s going to work.” Then, more silence. When they had finished, Carl looked over what they had done. “I reckon it will hold a sheep or a goat,” he said, “for a while anyway.”
DROUGHT IS A SLOW, INEXORABLE killer, but four days after Gil’s roping clinic, it exacted a swift and terrible toll on the Stoner Ranch. Gil usually feeds coastal hay to the horses, but coastal is hard to find this year, so he bought alfalfa instead. A day after eating it, six horses stopped feeding—a sure sign of sickness. They had ingested blister beetles, which are attracted to alfalfa when it blooms. The beetles are hard to detect because they may be deep inside a bale, smothered to death but still toxic. Their poison can kill horses at once, or it can cause them to founder so badly that they can’t stand on their legs, in which case they have to be destroyed. I learned of the crisis from Amy when I called to confirm my next visit to the ranch. Three of the horses had already recovered; three were still at the vet’s, prognosis poor.
I arrived the next day, driving most of the way from San Antonio to Uvalde through a steady rain. Hurricane Dolly had gone ashore in Mexico, and the outer squalls were dumping rain on Texas. But the storms had never made it as far as the Nueces River Canyon: The dirt road to the Stoner Ranch was as dusty as ever. Gil and Amy had gone into Uvalde to see the vet, and Red was waiting for me at the ranch house. He ushered me into the living room and lit up the inevitable Pall Mall. Amy has added her touches to the house that had been a male domain for three decades, but the living room has remained as it has always been—a cowhide area rug, deerskins thrown on the chairs, a serape over the sofa, a full gun rack, more guns leaning against a wall, deer heads on the walls, rodeo trophies and pictures of horses everywhere.
While we waited to learn the fate of the horses, Red told story after story about ranching and family lore. His mind was an almanac of lost arts: protecting newborn goats, laying water pipe, living on credit at the general store. Every story seemed to carry a little moral. Of Carl he said, “He’ll do his share and a little bit more. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, but there’s not enough of that in this country these days. At the same time, he’s not a man I’d like to have mad at me. I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be too.” He talked about Anna, her daughter (“the best sidesaddle rider I ever saw”), and his three children, Gil and Tom and their sister, Jamie, who own the ranch jointly. Red rated Tom as a better natural rider than Gil, but Gil was more driven. “A great horse trainer has to be a perfectionist,” he said.
At last we heard Gil and Amy driving up the road and went outside to the sight of boiling storm clouds in an evening sky. The news from Uvalde was mixed: two of the sick horses would make it; one would not. It could have been better, but at least it wasn’t worse—the story of a rancher’s life, it seems.
For a while the blue-black clouds appeared to be going around us to the southwest, but then the wind changed, and fresh, cooled air pressed hard against our faces. It was that delicious moment when you know that rain is inevitable.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said Gil. “This is why the whole United States has fallen in love with the West. When I was in Houston, you didn’t dare wear a cowboy hat to school. Now, people in the city work all their lives as doctors and lawyers, just to have this. To them there’s nothing as romantic as a ranch.”
“Romantic?” asked Amy. She rolled her eyes.
I asked Gil what his wish list was for the ranch. “I’d like better quality horses to work with,” he said. “Horses that I picked for a customer, without having to overcome other people’s mistakes. I’d like to plant coastal, put in sprinkler irrigation, and raiser our own feed.”
“That means a new tractor,” said Red. “Twenty thousand dollars.”
The list got longer, new fences, pasture improvement, level the brush in strips to leave wildlife cover, put cement on the road to the back pasture, get the welding machine fixed, repair the cistern, fix up the tack room.
I asked Amy what her wish list included. She rolled her eyes again. “Don’t get me started,” she said.
The first raindrops started to fall. No one made a move to go inside. “I just want to make a living here,” said Gil, “improve the place, let kids grow up in this kind of atmosphere.”
“I don’t see anything changing for the better,” his father said.
“Well, you know what they say about ranching,” Gil answered. “You live poor, but you die rich.” I knew that he wasn’t talking about money.