An Excerpt From The Hart Brand
In the spring of my fourteenth year, I rode for the Hart brand.
Today, that statement isn’t so hard to imagine, but thirty-odd years ago the wind and sun hadn’t turned my face to leather, my nose wasn’t so misshapen, and I didn’t stand so bowlegged. Fact is, in those days I could count the times I had been on the back of a horse on one hand. Shames me to admit it, but I grew up city-born, a “green pea” as you-all might say. All that would change in ’96. Captain Hart saw to that.
The Panic of 1893 had been hard on my parents, struggling to stay off tick in the depressed economy of St. Louis, Missouri. We ran a mercantile, though Papa never had much of a head, or interest, for business. Keeping shelves stocked and the ledger balanced proved to be my mother’s job, and with three other children - me being the oldest - taking her focus from our store while more and more folks bought their wares, seemed like, through mail-order outfits like Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward, times had grown lean. So around Christmas of ’95 my father declared it high time I earned my keep and became a man. St. Louis had a population of more than half a million, and growing, a lot of those folks hungry and looking for employment. That meant there was little work to be found for a fourteen-year-old, at least, nothing that paid enough to make it worthwhile and not offend my mother’s staunch Methodist sensibilities. With Mama’s reluctant help, Papa penciled a letter to his younger brother in New Mexico Territory, and when the reply came, my parents scraped together what cash they could find and bought a railroad ticket to some place called Las Cruces. One of my uncle’s riders would be waiting for me at the depot, he had written, and if I proved a fit enough cowhand, I would earn thirty a month and found, almost all of that money to be wired back to my folks. If things didn’t work out, I could seek employment elsewhere in the Territory, and, well, Mama and Papa would have one less mouth to feed.
Looking back, I am certain my mother, who had been born in St. Louis and never even set foot outside of Missouri - not even crossing the river to Illinois, just to say she’d been there, which I had done at age six - would never have agreed to this apprenticeship had she had known what lay in store. But we weren’t soothsayers, and Mama, being business-minded, realized we desperately needed that money, reasoning that at least I’d be working for family, though she had not seen Frank Hart since her wedding. Still, Papa had a hard enough time getting her to relent, for his crooked legs, arthritic joints, scarred forehead, busted nose and swollen knuckles did not exactly relieve her anxiety that cowboying was a safe profession, but he prevailed by wearing Mama down.
I wanted to go simply for the adventure, to see something other than hacks in a noisy city or bolts of calico and kegs of nails. I longed to feel something other than the miserable humidity, to escape the dreary skies, drab buildings and that smell of stagnant water and Mississippi River mud. I wanted to touch the mountains and desert and smell the grass Papa always talked about.
Back in the olden times - and my father had been a relic long before I entered this world - Lucas and Frank Hart had cowboyed together in Texas and Kansas, driving herds of longhorns up the trails to such forgotten towns as Ellsworth, Grand Junction and Caldwell. Frank Hart had saved his money, and, through good fortune and an iron will, had carved an empire for himself in Lincoln County. My father, on the other hand, had never been the lucky Hart. One wreck too many on one rangy mustang too many left Papa too stoved up to cowboy, so he was pushing a broom in a stuffy mercantile when he met my mother.
He could tell stories, though, tales I cherished as a toddler but had outgrown as a teenager. By then, I figured Papa was full of fish stories and applejack, and found it just too hard to picture him, crippled as he was, as a man who had done any kind of work on the back of a horse. Yet his eyes beamed when my uncle decided to take a chance on me, and I can still see him so vividly, can smell the rye on his breath and Barber’s Favorite shaving soap on his cheeks, as he limped to the depot with me on a bitterly cold January morning. He stuck a handful of peppermint candies, taken, I presumed, from the jar next to the cash register while Mama wasn’t looking, in my coat pocket, along with a few wrinkled shinplasters and a couple of coins, perhaps all the cash money he had left.
Leaning his gnarled hickory cane against the wall, he pulled me close, not quite a hug, but as near to one as he could manage. “Write when you can. Your ma would appreciate that.” He held out his callused hand, and we shook. “Frank can be a hard man, Caleb,” he told me as tears welled in his own eyes, and mine, too. “But he’s fair. You’re a Hart, boy, and blood runs thick. Say your prayers, mind your manners, listen to your elders and always remember this: You ride for the brand.”
I had heard him use that phrase before, swapping lies and telling windies in front of the cracker barrel to any other old cowhand who would listen. Ride for the brand. I never knew what it really meant, though, but I would soon learn.
Captain Franklin J. Hart would teach me. In the rugged southeastern corner of New Mexico Territory, he’d teach me a bundle, more than 1,200 miles from the civilization I knew as home, and so would the friends I would make that year, cowboys, as they said, “to ride the river with” - men like Dickie Fergusson and Rex Steele and Kim Harrigan. And a couple of women, too. I’d have other teachers, folks I remember to this day, and many others I have long since forgotten.
Once winter gave way to spring, I would be riding for the Hart brand.
Eventually, though, I’d ride against the brand. Captain Hart saw to that, too.
Copyright 2006 by Johnny D. Boggs