A few weeks back, I was looking through some old family photos. Some of them go back almost a hundred years. The one that caught my attention was a line of grinning men and women standing in front of a clapboard shack. One young man held a baby.
Me. That was seventy-four years ago, but what caught my attention was an old man in his sixties standing at the end. His name was Slim.
I’ve mentioned Slim before. I never knew his last name. He wasn’t blood kin, but he was as much of the family as anyone.
As long as I can remember, he was always around. An old broken down cowboy from the Frying Pan Ranch up near Amarillo, the rigors of cowboying had sent him to the farm.
When I was growing up, he’d bounce me on his knee, then later let me ride on his back. I was around five or so when I heard his story the first time.
An orphan, he grew up bitter and angry, resenting everyone and always looking for a fight. He got in trouble once too often in Mobeetie, and the judge gave him a choice of jail or work, and if he quit work within two years, he’d end up in the calaboose. The next day, he hired on at the Frying Pan Ranch back west.
He remained wild and angry. After a few brawls in the bunkhouse, the foreman assigned him the hated job of repairing fences, all one hundred and twenty miles of four-strand wire.
The young hellion had a choice, barb wire or jail. He took the wire, which kept him away from headquarters a month at a time. And out of trouble.
Now he always looked forward to holidays, the Fourth, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. That was about the only time he could get away from his fence mending other than paydays.
Fence mending shut down at Thanksgiving for the winter.
Slim was counting the days.
Two days before he was slated to head back to headquarters some thirty miles distant, a blue norther swept across the Panhandle.
According to Slim, for one of the few times in his life, he was scared. He had seen too much evidence of the devastation those snow storms brought.
Headquarters was out of the question. His only chance was an old shack with two walls missing about three miles distant.
Hours later, he had not found the shack. His fears grew, but he plodded ahead.
Not long after, he spotted the cabin, and to his surprise, there was a light coming from around the edges of the cowhide covering the window.
Inside, an old man greeted him, explaining that seeing the shack deserted, he had repaired it and moved in for the winter. He had even rigged up a partial windbreak for his horse, and there was room for Slim’s animals.
The cabin was warm and a mouthwatering aroma arose from the pot bubbling on the potbellied stove. It was only rabbit, but the ‘best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had’, he said.
Four days, the storm raged. On the fifth, the skies cleared, and despite the snow, Slim headed to the ranch before the next storm blew in.
‘Everyone thought I was froze to death,” he said. “They didn’t believe me about the old man. So, the foreman and me went back the next day.”
The shack was deserted; two walls were missing; and a foot of snow covered the pot bellied stove.
No one could explain how he had survived four days in such a storm without shelter, but he had.
Now, I never heard Slim say this, but Mama Holly once told me that Slim had confided in her and Papa that he knew how he had managed to survive. Someone wanted him to live. ‘I reckon it was God,” he told Mama and Papa.
Gone was the anger, the resentment, the bitterness that had caused him so much trouble.
Slim stayed on the ranch even after a bronc busted him so badly that all he could do was cook, and for the next few years, he did that with a ready smile and a
willingness to go out of his way to help other cowboys.
You know, old men, especially cowboys, like to tell stretchers. I’ve often wondered over the years if Slim was just making all that up. I don’t think he was, because after Slim passed on, Mama told me an old cowboy from the Frying Pan Ranch showed up at the old man’s funeral.
Maybe it didn’t happen—or maybe it did.
I like to think it did.