THE MUSES OF BULVERDE
ON THE TEXAS FRONTIER DURING THE 1950sby Ira Kennedy
Pioneer Texas was alive and well in the early 1950s. I know because I was living that life from time to time, in my 11th and the 12th year. My mother, Lucille, would take me from our home in Blanco to the home of the Muses on a 900-acre ranch near Bulverde. Aunt Mary, Uncle Henry, and their son, who everybody called Uncle Bud would take me in for a week or two at a stretch during the summers and on other occasions during the year.
The Muses were living in a classic Texas-German limestone house that was just over a hundred years old. There was no electricity, and water was pumped by hand from the well. They had a few chickens, a milk cow, and a ranch abundant with wildlife. For the table, the Muses gathered eggs, churned their own butter, and hunted for dinner every day.
The roundabout experiences that brought me to Aunt Marys and Uncle Henrys place were incredible in their own right. I was born in a tent in a migrant camp in San Saba. By my fifth year my mother married Owen, an officer in the army. He had two children from a previous marriage, and our new family moved to Japan in 1946. From there we lived in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Staten Island before returning to Texas. At the time there was a "police action" in Korea which needed soldiers. While dad was away, my mother, with five children, needed her mother, Rosa (Kelley) Daniels who was living in Blanco at the time.
I dont remember how long my first visit was, but I do recall getting out of our 49 Ford and being immediately ashamed of the newness of my clothes. Even by standards of the 50s the Muses were "poor folk." The only clue that they lived in the 20th century was the old flatbed truck out front. They chopped cedar on the ranch for their staples, and when they had a full load they would trade at the cedar yard and country store located at the Bulverde turnoff on Hwy 281. But the rest of the time they stayed on, and lived off the land on the Oliver Ranch.
Although I was too small and inexperienced to chop cedar, I did work in the cedar break clearing the severed limbs of cedars and stacking pickets and posts for hauling. When Id get caught up, I would roam around looking for arrowheads which were fairly plentiful in the area. It didnt take long for my clothes to show enough wear so I began to fit right in.
Back at the ranchhouse Id gather eggs, churn butter, bring in firewood for the kitchen stove; and everyday, just before sunset, Id go hunting with Uncle Bud ( the son of Aunt Mary and Uncle Henry) so we would have some meat for supper - all the while I was busy trying to purge myself of any trace of a Yankee accent. It wasnt long before I leaned to say aint and git and yonder and yall, and I would never carry anything but I would tote it.
In the evenings we would sit around the light of a coal oil lamp, or out under the moon and stars, where I would hear stories and yarns aplenty. For me, however, the highlight of our daily routine was hunting for supper with Uncle Bud.
I remember one time, early on, Uncle Bud said, "Come on. Lets get some meat for the table. Were gonna lose daylight pretty quick." With that he picked up a .22 from its resting place in the corner of the room and took down a small box of shells from a kitchen shelf. He took two.
"Dont we need more than that?" I asked. "Why dont we take the whole box?"
Bud looked at me with the slightest of smiles.
"Well," he said pondering the two bright brass shells in his rough hand, "we only need one rabbit."
Out in the fields wed walk slow and quiet. Hardly a word would pass between us. When hed raise up one hand like he was warming it off a stove I knew to stop.
"Look out yonder." He whispered.
"I dont see nothing."
"Dont look for critters, look for movement. Take it all in."
Then I saw what Uncle Bud saw. Out in the flat halfway between us and the treeline of cedars the faintest puff of dust rose a foot or so off the ground catching the late afternoon light. "Whats causing that?" I asked softly.
"Its a rabbit wallerin in the dirt. Watch." Suddenly he let out a clear whistle, and the rabbit sat straight up. At that moment Uncle bud let off a round straight into the rabbit.
There was flurry of dust, and then nothing.
On other occasions hed use that whistle to stop a rabbit that had spotted us first. More often than not the critter would freeze in its tracks and look around one last time before it was brought down forever.
Mostly wed eat cottontail, but when none would give themselves to us wed bring back a jackrabbit. More than once, when our luck was real bad or we started out too late wed have nothing more to show for our effort than an armadillo. They were always underfoot and too easy to kill.
If wed scare up a rabbit that was too smart to fall for that whistle trick, wed always circle back around because, frequently, it would return to the same spot and an entirely different fate. I learned to walk into the wind, keep the sun at my back, and shoot only if I had a clear and certain shot. I learned too that youre not supposed to eat rabbit in a month that doesnt have an "r" in it. In the hotter months, May thru August, there is a higher risk of disease. But since we had to eat in the summer too, Uncle Bud learned long ago what to look for. I remember my shock, and sadness, the first time we had to leave a cottontail in the field. I thought we ought to bury it, but Uncle bud convinced me it deserved a higher fate soaring around in the belly of a buzzard.
Whatever critter we came in with Aunt Mary would fry to a turn on a wood stove, before serving up cornbread or biscuits and beans or potatoes. From the honey tree there was always honey, complete with honeycomb and a bee or two trapped inside a large Mason jar. For spices there was salt, pepper, and little jar of pickled chilies. Thick chunks of fresh churned butter and a bowl of steaming gravy completed the meal which covered their modest kitchen table. Occasionally wed have wild greens, such as dandelion, topped off with vinegar. In the center a coal oil lamp graced the room with light.
I remember so well the intermingled scents from the food, the wood stove, the and after each meal, tobacco smoke from Bull Durham which Uncle Henry and Uncle Bud always had on hand. They didnt smoke "ready rolls" and they preferred strike-anywhere kitchen matches to the books of "gofer matches" - strike one and go fer another. Aunt Mary dipped snuff and she always had a spit can (usually an empty coffee can) within easy reach.
Let me describe the Muses to you starting with Uncle Henry. What I remember most was his black cowboy hat stained to perfection, with a leather hatband studded every inch or so with red and blue rhinestones. Underneath that was a lean man, well into to his sixties by looking older. He never said much, but when he spoke it was worth hearing. And everyone said he never went back on his word. He never spoke ill of another and never cussed, even in the worst to times. I don't remember how it came about, but I remember Uncle Henry showing my a $100 bill he always kept in his wallet. It was Uncle Henry's firm belief that a man never borrowed money and back then $100 could answer almost any emergency.
In her youth, Aunt Mary was a striking woman, with a face deserving a cameo. But life had been more than hard on her. When she was young, a riding accident left her permanently blind in one eye which was always crossed. Aged by years of labor in the sun her deeply wrinkled face gave no hint of it former beauty. She chopped cedar every day, right along with the men, but whether in the field or in the kitchen, her manner was gentle and caring.
Uncle Bud was as much a father to me as a friend. His once grey cowboy hat was shorter in the brim than most and beat to within an inch of its life. Underneath it was a head as bald as a doorknob, and a face that nearly always held a four-day growth of whiskers. He had a few teeth missing and when he talked his jaw would slip out of joint and hed wiggle it sideways till it lined up right, then hed continue as if nothing had happened. He had a fair limp which got worse after he accidentally cut clean through his boot while chopping cedar. Fortunately the injury was on the already gimpy limb. When that happened we went home where Aunt Mary cut up a bedsheet which she wrapped around her sons foot after it received a good dose of kerosene. Uncle Bud was back chopping cedar that afternoon.
Despite the fact that they all looked older than dirt and were considered just as poor, they never complained against their fate, and I never heard a quarrel. Despite my total ignorance of country ways, they were good teachers, patient and tolerant of a young boys foolishness. For instance:
With all the rabbit killing going on, it wasnt long before I decided what I really needed was a rabbits foot, for luck. When I introduced the idea to Uncle Bud he held the dead cottontail up by its ears and asked, "Which one do you want?"
I had never carried the idea that far so I didnt have a clue. "Which one would you take?" I asked, knowing Uncle Bud would have the answer.
"Well," he said, studying the lifeless animal, "this doesnt appear to be one of your luckier rabbits. But if I was you Id take the right rear, it has most of the hop in it."
So the right rear it was. I deposited the severed paw in a Bull Durham bag which I tied around my belt. In the following days I had rabbits feet packed in that bag like cordwood. In time my mother came out to visit and while we were all sitting around the kitchen table she sniffed the air.
"Whats that smell?"
"Oh, that," Uncle Bud said after a moment. With a nod in my direction he explained, "Thats them rabbits feet hes got dangling offa his belt. Sposed to be lucky."
The odor, it seems, grew up around me kinda gradual and I never really took note. That same evening I buried my sack at the base of a tree beside the house. Nothing else was ever said.
I almost forgot, the other family member - a dog named Roy. I dont remember what kind he was, probably a little of many, but he was intelligent and obedient. One evening Roy came up to the house dragging a nearly lifeless fawn. We took it in and tended to its wounds. The next day Uncle Bud and I followed Roys trail back to a fenceline where tiny pieces of hair were still caught in the barbed wire. We kept the deer in an unused pen where it began healing rapidly.
Within a few days a game warden came out to the place on good word that we had a captive deer. He told Uncle Henry the deer looked well enough to him and that if it wasnt released in two days hed have to pay a fine. Coincidentally, the following day the owner of the ranch, Mr. Oliver, came out for a visit. Mr. Oliver was a lawyer in San Antonio, and after he heard the whole story he gave his card to Uncle Henry.
"Here," he said, "give this to the warden and tell him you think the deer might have rabies and youre going to keep it penned up for two weeks to make sure its o.k., after that the deer (which we had already named Billy) wont leave anyway. If the warden has a problem with that have him call me."
Billy was soon right at home and was always trying to come in the house right behind Roy. As long as their was daylight Billy stayed around the house, but every evening hed meander out to the big field in the west where he would join the herd that grazed there most every evening. Just after sunrise Billy would show up at the house again and make himself at home. One evening, during deer season, Billy stayed gone.
I had a reasonable amount of chores to do on the place, and most were easy. Churning butter was tiresome and boring. Gathering eggs was the most fun, until the rooster, which didnt have a name, decided attacking me was its principal duty. Around that time I had just bought a new straw cowboy hat which cost forty nine cents. I was proud of that hat. Soon it became my main line of defense against the rooster which would sneak around trying to corner me. Once he thought he had me cornered, here hed come, a flying mass of claws and feathers. At first a good whack from my hat somewhere alongside his head would knock sense either into or out of it. Either way, I could walk away. But he was getting meaner by the day. In no time he had me running and wouldnt stop until I reached the safety of the fenced yard.
Finally, it all came to a head. I had just gathered up a basket full of eggs in the main barn when the rooster came wheeling around the corner ready to fight. He had me cornered for sure this time, and we fought till I beat the top out of my hat while clearing and escape route. Then I ran so fast I dont remember what happened till I jumped the yard fence.
By then Aunt Mary, Uncle Henry, and Uncle Bud were all gathered on the front porch to see what all the commotion was. Before I could explain, Uncle Bud walked into the house and back out again without saying a word. He was carrying the .22, and as he reached the fence he raised the rifle and fired almost without aiming. The rooster dropped to the ground, flopped around, and got up again ready for more. And more he received. By the third shot only the wind was moving the roosters feathers. Uncle Bud turned and walked back to the house. Passing me he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Go get them eggs."
Looking back, so much seemed to happen on the ranch with the Muses - stories pile on top of stories - it hardly seems possible that I didnt live with them all the time instead of just a few months out of the year. They took me into their home and showed me what life was like on the Texas frontier. Theyre all gone now, but the memories they made they truly were the Muses.
From the Oliver Ranch, like one of those rabbits we hunted, I made some pretty wide loops - to Germany and back, to California and back, to New York City and back. But I always came back home to the Texas hills. After all, I need to be as close as I can get to my lucky rabbits feet.