I'll Gather My Geese
Hallie Crawford Stillwell (1991)
When writing this book I did not aspire to write a masterpiece. I wanted only to leave with my children and grandchildren something about my life on the raw frontier of Texas. My small role in "taming the West" was different from that of other women who lived there because of the many years I spent in the saddle playing an active part in the cattle business.
I have written about things that I experienced personally: the Pancho Villa revolution and raids along the Rio Grande, traveling on a boarded highway, crossing raging water at flood stage on a barge, living through the Spanish influenza, surviving the 1929 financial crash, living through the drought of the thirties, tending my family in sickness and through accidents, keeping the home fires burning in spite of adverse conditions, and holding onto land that I cherished. These are experiences I know about or was told about by my husband, Roy. My research is limited due to a lack of documentation in the far West Texas area during much of my life on this frontier. I had no reason to doubt Roy, and therefore I offer to you, the reader, what I believe to be true or what I know to be true based on what I was told or experienced. (xi)
There were few jobs for women during these years, and teaching was certainly the most respectable job for a woman in the West Texas area. I had heard that there was a vacancy in Presidio, and I quickly wrote a letter to the president of the Board of Trustees of the Presidio Common School. In a short time, I was informed that I had a teaching job.
Presidio was largely populated by Texans of Mexican descent. Most of these people had fled Mexico seeking protection from Pancho Villa and his raiders. Pancho Villa and his army had recently captured Ojinaga, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from Presidio, and all of Mexico was in a rebellion, causing many hardships within the country and a torn-up government.
My father thought this place was too dangerous for a young lady. He didn't want me to go, and stressed this point often.
"Daughter, I think you're going on a wild goose chase," he said.
I finally replied somewhat flippantly, "Then I'll gather my geese." (10)
At that point, I knew that Roy Stillwell was the most dashing, handsome, and romantic man in the country, or at least knew what made my heart do "flip-flops." He was twenty years my senior, but this made no difference and I found myself completely in love. (13)
On one particular occasion, Roy, Will, and Alice were hidden in a canyon some twelve miles from the Rio Grande crossing. Thinking that they had eluded the Mexican soldiers and were safe, they built a campfire on which they planned to cook their evening meal. As they were preparing their meal, a spray of bullets passed through their camp. One bullet knocked a skillet out of Will's hand, and Alice had a bullet driven through her hat, leaving a memorable hole. The group hid in the bushes and watched as the soldiers raided their camp and stole their horses and saddles. (18-19)
During one confrontation with the Mexican army that took place before Billy was sent to prison, a soldier stole Billy's favorite gun. When Alice learned that the gun was gone, without offering any explanation to her husband or brothers she saddled her pony and rode alone over many rough miles in search of the soldiers' camp. After a long ride, she located their campsite and rode right into the camp, jumped from her horse at the entrance to their tent, threw open the flap, and pointed her gun at the men inside. She held them at gunpoint while she recovered her husband's gun from one of the soldiers. She then quickly turned, mounted her pony, and left at a run. (20-1)
Roy's instructions were very clear. "Hallie, never allow one of these men past the front gate. If one comes through the gate, shoot him!"
I was at first astonished at his remark. "You mean you want me to shoot him just like that?"
"Yes, if he gets past the gate it will be too late. All these men who are looking for work know to wait at the gate for an invitation. Any one who does not know this is not looking for work but for something more."
I felt somewhat uncomfortable about this but I knew that I had to protect myself and the ranch. As I shuddered, Roy reminded me, "There is a loaded gun in every corner of the house. If you need to use one, get the closest one and make the first shot count. Remember, never shoot to scare but shoot to kill!" (28)
For cowboys, the life of a ranchman is nothing to brag about, their problems are nothing to discuss with other people, and their business is very confidential. Because of this typical attitude of most of the ranchmen in the West Texas area, few have much to say, and most expect others to know what they are thinking at all times. Roy was certainly this type of person. This made life on our ranch somewhat complicated at times. (29)
Roy never told the men what to do or where to go. This frustration led the men to think of something that would show Roy just how difficult life could be working on the ranch without really being told what was expected. They came up with a scheme to gauge just how far Roy would go without giving a command. This effort was an attempt to get even with what I called Roy's "silent spells." These men saddled up one morning ready to ride and waited for their directions. Roy saddled up and rode off. The men just remained doggedly behind as Roy rode out into the pasture and never looked back. The men, determined to make their points, sat at the ranch house all morning long, but Roy never returned to give them their orders. Their wait became an extremely nervous and frustrating one.
When noon came, the men left their spots and walked quietly into the house for lunch. They were a tired-looking bunch with drooping heads. Jona whispered to me that he and the men really did not mean any harm; they just wanted to show Roy the importance of knowing what to do. Jona was really worried about Roy's response. It was then obvious that the men's plan had not worked and Roy was not going to play their game.
The men had not been in the house long when Roy came in for lunch. They all ate very quietly and the three anxious men waited for Roy's reaction. When the group had finished eating, Roy got up, put on his hat, turned to the men, and said, "C'mon boys!" The men jumped up and followed like hungry puppies after their mother.
Lee told me later that he was never so glad to hear anybody say anything to him in his whole life. This stunt did not open Roy up any more, but I do believe that they all learned a good lesson that day. (29-30)
I found out quickly that I was to live like a man, work like a man, and act like a man, and I was not so sure I was not a man when it was all over. The good lord did give me a mind that could not be governed by a man, and I remained a woman. I feel sure at times now that this one fact caused me lots of grief; but also lots of happiness. (32)
I took off, hardly knowing where I was going or where I would land. I went to the end of the draw, which came to a broad end with mountains all around, so I supposed that must be the rincon he had mentioned. I had never heard of a rincon and was not sure whether it was a ditch, a hill, a mound, or a caliche pit, but I thought that surely the place I was was where he meant for me to be. (37)
Roy told me later that he had killed many bears in his time and only out of necessity, but he hated every one of those killings. He said that every time he skinned one out and laid the carcass on the ground, it reminded him of a human being's skeleton. (42)
We were all glad to be home again after the cow work. Even the little wood cookstove looked good to me after so many days in camp bending over a campfire for all our meals. One can appreciate a roof over one's head after spending days and nights in the open. I could not imagine how Roy could say that the happiest days of his life were when he lived under a hackberry tree. He even showed me the certain tree that he called home when he first came out of Mexico into the Big Bend of Texas and began working the open range. Since he had not established a homestead at that point, he kept a one-by-twelve piece of lumber wedged between limbs of the tree on which he kept a few groceries in a ten-gallon flour can, a bedroll, a coffee can, and a frying pan. He had even built a rock pen up against a high bluff to catch and hold horses. Yes, he was happy then, he was young, and he had no household responsibilities, and he had no one to answer to except himself. Riding, roping, and going where he pleased and when he pleased was a good life for Roy. (44)
Roy made good his promise, and before long I had a bedroom, a good bed, and a nice dresser. I fashioned some curtains for the window out of flour sacks and I then indeed felt that I was living in the lap of luxury. (45)
In the kitchen, there was writing all over the walls and door facings. Those scriptures were something like this: "Rained big on July 10th," "Bought 6 bulls from Hess," "Set hen on Mar. 5th," "Trip to river May 3," and other such writings. I thought the room would look much better with these writings all gone. I only left the sign on the kitchen door: "Help yourself to grub, wash dishes, put cat out."
When Roy and the men came home that night, they did not praise my clean kitchen. The first words I heard were, "Hellshe's washed away our records, how are we to remember everything?" Roy complained, "We depend on these records to settle arguments!"
I sat silently while Roy and the other men glared at those clean walls with frustration. It was as though a fire had swept away some valuable information for good. However, to this day I fail to see why those notes were so important. I had only wanted to be a good housekeeper.
The next morning when I awakened I heard grumbling sounds coming from the kitchen. Four men were sitting in a torment as they sipped on the early morning coffee. It was obvious that they were trying to make the best of a bad situation. I heard Lee moan, "It will be six months before this pot can make decent coffee again."
I knew then that I had made another bad mistake. I would never be forgiven for washing that coffee pot. I covered my head with a pillow and sank down under the covers as Roy came into the bedroom. "Here, try to drink this coffee. Why in the hell did you wash the coffee pot?"
I had always enjoyed lying in a comfortable bed and listening to the cowboys as they ground the Arbuckle coffee beans in the coffee grinder as they prepared the morning meal. That particular morning I was not so comfortable. The grumbling about the clean coffee pot did not last the six months as predicted, and the men were thoughtful enough to keep their comments to themselves so that I would not feel so bad. I never even attempted to wash that coffee pot again or scrub those walls without first checking with Roy.
Even though I was somewhat embarrassed about my mistake, I felt that it was just a little one. Needless to say, the story was told in Alpine and Marathon, and it was years before I heard the end of it. Roy's friends would casually ask if I had washed the coffee pot again and then let out a hearty laugh. Let a woman make one little mistake and it becomes the joke of years. (45-6)
Roy took a ten-gallon tin can and surrounded it with tow sacks that were attached with baling wire. After completely covering the can with those sacks, he filled the open areas through the sacks and around the can with oats. He clamped a wire to this can and hung it from the arbor top. Roy pulled a gourd from a patch near the house and cleaned it out. After letting it dry in the sun for some time, he tied a piece of twine around its neck and hooked it to a piece of wire that wrapped around the can. This gourd became the dipper from which many of us drank cool refreshing water. Each evening Roy would fill this can with water and wet the sacks and oats down. This process kept the water cool for drinking at all times. Many a cowboy's thirst was quenched from this can. (47)
Most of my free time was spent enjoying the peace and tranquility that the arbor provided, but I did enjoy a few other hobbies, such as gathering the arrowheads or other Indian artifacts that were prevalent on the ranch. I came by this pleasure quite innocently and I think that Roy often felt that it was just another means of my wasting good working time, although I really think that he did not mind my "foolish" jaunts or huntings. I did learn to avoid doing these things when Roy was working hard or apt to be displeased with my interests. I spent much more time working with the men than I did enjoying my idle time and that made Roy much happier with me. (47-8)
Roy said, "That's an Indian spearhead." He then explained that our entire ranch was an Indian campground with Indian shelters, large mounds, and even a painting on a bluff not too far from the house.
Immediately I was interested in the things Roy was telling me. I thought to myself, "I'll explore this ranch and learn something about these unknown people who dwelled here some time in the past." (48)
As I extended my explorations in the Maravillas Shut-up, I was amazed at the many caves that showed evidence of occupation. I was charmed by all of this rare and interesting history of our ranch. Roy said that every time I was really needed to hunt cows, I was off my horse looking for arrow heads and rocks.
I began to make a study of these unknown people who were of an earlier age and so mystical to me. Roy, who had known many Indians in northern Mexico as well as along the Rio Grande border, said that they knew nothing of these early people; that all these signs were there when they came. (49)
The ranch needed much work to keep it in full operation, but it offered me many types of entertainment. I never missed town much, as I was always finding new and interesting objects, plants, artifacts, caves, and so on that would grab my interest, and I would soon be off in my own little world again. (50)
He had even won several dollar bills, something that had no value whatsoever to Roy. After making several remarks about that poker game, he stated that he was disappointed that there were men there using that "worthless paper money." He told of his winnings, and he gave the "worthless" dollar bills to my younger sister, Glen. How she loved to have Roy come around because she knew those dollar bills could be spent even though he thought they would buy nothing. (62)
While the men were readying themselves for the race, and unknown to them, a medicine show had come to town and the peddler had put up a tent in the pathway of the race. He had set up medicine bottles, pots and pans, and all the things that would often sell to country people. The medicine man was proud of his wares and took great pains in fixing the attractive displays, Plenty of Cura-Cura salve, Arnica salve, Calomel, Dr. La Gear's Horse liniment, Lydia Pinkham elixir (good for "ladies' ailments"), Baby Percy talcum powder, paregoric, and asafetida were among his many wares. (Most of us knew that the only reason the asafetida worked was because the smell was so bad that no one would dare come around you if you were wearing it; therefore, you were never exposed to contagious illnesses.) When the medicine man came to town, he was a very popular caller, and many people purchased goods of all sorts from him. . . .
Not only did the townspeople need the wares that the medicine man sold, but they enjoyed his visits immensely, as they were great entertainment. It didn't take long for the medicine man to get his business going that day. People crowded around as soon as he set up shop.
Meanwhile, all the upper end of the racetrack a loud boom from Louie Ritchey's six-shooter was the signal that the race had started, and the crowd of onlookers who had made handsome bets ran as fast as they could to watch the racing cars. Syl and Roy, in a dead heat, did not see the medicine show tent that loomed in their pathway. When they discovered the obstacle, it was too late to avoid a smashup. As the two drivers emerged from under the overturned tent, they blinked their bloodshot eyes as they encountered a furious old man who was waving his arms and shouting, "I'll sue you blankety-blanks! Where's the sheriff here?"
Roy rose to his full six feet two inches and declared that he was the sheriff.
"I'll sue!" yelled the old man. "Where is the county judge?"
At that moment Syl said, ''I'm the judge here."
At that, Syl offered the old man a drink from his sotol bottle. By that time the crowd of onlookers had arrived at the scene and they too offered drinks to the angry old man.
"It's a plumb shame," commented Bill Fudge, as he viewed the medicine bottles, pots and pans, and trinkets that were scattered around in piles on the ground. "Have a drink of this tequila and we'll pick up this stuff and put the tent together again."
While the men were putting the tent back up and arranging the displays of medicine bottles and other items, the angry old medicine man was being treated to free drinks from various sotol bottles.
"The tent is fixed and everything's back into place," announced Speck Harris as he viewed the contents in the tent.
The old man rose to his feet, blinked his watery eyes at the battered tent, and in a loud voice shouted, "Give me another drink, boys, back up, and run through her again." (63-4)
After looking around the battered car, he noticed Syl propped up against the bent bumper of his car. There he sat with his drink of sotol in his hand. He glanced up at Roy, smiled, held up his drink, and nodded. "Didn't spill a drop, Roy!"
The two men gathered up their wits, shared a final drink, hopped in Roy's car, and headed to Alpine to report the accident. The story that was told on the streets was not that Syl had survived the accident; it was that Syl had managed to flip his car and salvage his most important asset, his drink of sotol. (65)
Finally Roy agreed to do what he could to help John when he was convinced that I and the ranch would be in good hands. Roy remembered that on the night of the stampede there had been a strong east wind. He knew that Mexican steers would head into that wind. Roy saddled his horse and headed east. He came to where the cattle were last seen and cut for sign (rode in a cross-direction for signs). It was not long before Roy found tracks and he knew then that the steers would be found on the highest mountain they could find. With the help of John's cowboys, the men found all twelve hundred steers resting under a bluff on Cupola Mountain, the highest in the area. The entire herd of steers were soon on the way to town escorted by happy cowboys. (86)
Even Roy had complained about my weight. He said to me one day, "I thought I married a fat girl, and now look at you. I want you back good and fat. I like fat women." (90)
While at the ranch, Mama was horrified at seeing all our guns in the house. She exclaimed one day, "Daughter, are those guns loaded?"
"Yes, Mama. Every gun is loaded and there is a gun handy in every room," I explained.
"Do you mean to say that you keep loaded guns where the children can get then?" She asked.
"Yes, we have told the children to leave the guns alone. They have never touched one of them." I then explained to Mama what Roy had told me earlier. "When you need to use a gun, there isn't time to look for cartridges or load it. The gun should be already loaded or it'll be too late." I told Mama that we had always lived by that rule. (94)
Needless to say, I received few praises from my husband. He never really scolded me either, but I always knew when I had done something wrong. I learned to read Roy like Indian signs, subtle but clear. (101)
Roy never apologized, but he did get over his mad spells pretty quickly. (102)
Even though I had many times disappointed Roy, the times he praised me or showed me acceptance made up for his anger. I knew that life would always be bittersweet as long as I was married to him. (104-5)
The government came up with the plan of killing the cattle. They would pay twelve dollars per head for grown cattle and six dollars for calves. As a last resort and with tears in our eyes, we gathered the cows that were too weak to live and accepted the government offer; we shot our cattle. We herded them up against a bluff in the Maravillas Creek and let the government men mow them down with thirty-thirty rifles. They called it a mercy killing. (113)
We were all sitting around the table visiting and Margaret asked me in front of Roy, "Hallie, how did you get along on the work? Did Roy yell at you?"
I softly answered, "Well, I guess I did pretty well. Roy only yelled at me one time."
Roy interjected, "Now, just when did I yell at you?"
"Don't you remember when we started to put the herd through the gate as we left the ranch and you yelled, 'Get on the point!'"
"Yes," he said. "And you got up there fast, too! If I had said, "Dear, will you please get up there on the point,' we would have lost the whole damn herd!" (120-1)
Son didn't really care for Dadie leaving home and he told me, "There we go sending Dadie to college, and when she gets out she'll marry some sorry boy and we'll be out all that money on her." (125)
When Roy saw me unload the sink at the ranch, he exploded. "We're not going to put that thing in! We don't need a kitchen sink. I've piped water from the well here to the arbor, which is handy for you, and besides that, a sink is always stopping up, and I don't want to have to be cleaning out pipes all the time!"
"AII right," I said. I hid the sink under the house. Every once in a while, I would drag the sink out in full view without saying a word to Roy, I was just mean enough to remind Roy that I still had the sink. (125)
Gus said, "Come on, Son. You and Guy and I are going to put that sink in the kitchen for Hallie."
Roy looked at me. I looked at Roy. Not a word was said. We just watched as Gus took over and with our boys' help installed the kitchen sink. Gus stayed on a couple of days visiting and watching as I enjoyed my kitchen sink. I was so grateful to him.
Roy even enjoyed the kitchen sink as much as I did, and the drain pipe never did stop up or need cleaning. Once I had water in the kitchen, another thought cropped up. I said to Roy, "Save me some of those two-by-fours and lumber out of that old barn you tore down. I want to build a bathroom."
Roy staunchly replied, "I'm going to use that lumber to build a big corral. You've been complaining and wanted a bigger and better corral, so now I'm going to build it!" I accepted Roy's attitude and dropped the subject.
Finally, though, Roy began to see things my way and let me have the material I needed to build the bathroom I so desperately wanted. What a job it was, too. The lumber was old and hard, my saw was dull, and the days were hot. However, I sawed, I nailed, I sweated. Not a soul would help me. Sometimes I would need a specific board and wouldn't have it. I would go to the new corral, while the men were out in the pasture, and take a good board off the new corral and re place it with a bad one that Roy had pawned off on me. I would never tell what I had done, but Roy knew. He didn't say a word. He would just let me have my way.
By summer's end, my bathroom was finished. What a luxury! Shower, inside toilet, and hot water heated from a little potbellied wood water heater. You never saw a better-bathed family than the Stillwells. Roy took two showers to my one, and all again became quiet on the western front. (126)
I was in hopes that Roy and the boys would be out in the pasture when Bill brought the icebox. But no, we were all sitting under the arbor, since It was such a hot day. We saw the dust and Bill coming with this big gleaming white refrigerator in the back of his pickup. .
Roy jumped up and exclaimed, "What In the hell, now?" (127)
"You can try it out, Roy. Won't cost a thing," Bill explained. "Come on Son, you and Guy help me, and we'll put this refrigerator in for your mama." The boys jumped up and started helping.
Roy turned to me and said, "Have you lost your mind? We can't afford to buy that icebox. You know how dry it is. Cattle prices are down and we don't have any money."
"Okay," I replied. "I'll go back to town to stay. I have a good icebox there. I am not going to stay here in all this heat any longer with out a refrigerator."
Roy didn't say another word. Bill and the boys installed the butane burning refrigerator. We did get it paid for and enjoyed it very much. Roy was really proud of the icebox and would often brag to our neighbors about having iced tea and cold butter and milk on hot afternoons. He even said one day, "Why one can put a whole half-beef in it." He would tell how we had bottles of butane that kept it going. I always took a backseat and let Roy talk about the wonders of having a refrigerator so far out in the country. (127)
The next morning, everything was frozen including my body. It took three strong hot cups of coffee for me to think that there was any possibility of thawing out. I think Roy was feeling sorry for me, so he told me that he had discovered the tracks of a large buck. He said that we needed meat for camp and told me to hunt it down. (134)
Dadie made many friends during her school days and often brought them home to the ranch for visits. We enjoyed almost all of them. (140)
When our tall lanky G.I. invested one hundred and fifty dollars in his wax factory Roy, being a pioneer cattleman, didn't mince words when he voiced his opinion of the subject of wax: "I'll be damned if I ever heard of a cowboy becoming a cattleman by making wax!"
Son ignored his father's remarks and continued with his wax making. Son soon heard from people in town, "That Stillwell boy is suffering from battle fatigue!" He knew immediately where the rumor had started. Roy just couldn't understand how Son could expect such foolishness to be profitable.
Still, Son continued with his wax production. He was realizing a nice profit, and with this profit he had dreams of establishing his own herd of cattle. However, Roy's silence was a constant reminder to Son that he was slightly out of paternal favor. I worried about their relationship and wondered if their old bondage would ever be restored. (143-4)