Western Short Story
Gone Four Years
John Duncklee

Western Short Story

Ben Norris had been a cowboy ever since he had helped his father before the old man had retired. His father, also a cowboy, worked around southern Arizona, taking care of the cattle and saddle horses on various ranches.

High school left him disinterested in book-learning, as his father referred to academics, but he managed to squeak through and graduate. As soon as he had his diploma in his hand in June 1946, Ben went to work full-time on an old Spanish Land Grant, Hacienda Kino, which was owned by Harry and Kate Sinclair. He rarely saw the Sinclairs because they lived two hours away in Tucson in their mansion located in “Snob Hollow”, a section of town housing the wealthy merchants as well as a few ranchers, most of who came from elsewhere.

Ben was happy to have his job as a cowboy, so he didn’t make any value judgments on the Sinclairs for being “Suitcase Ranchers”. He came to like both Harry and Kate because they never interfered with his ideas on how the cattle should be husbanded. When they came out to their ranch they were always friendly.

Ben was old fashioned in many ways, one of which was that he “rode for the brand”, meaning that regardless of the ranch or range ownership, Ben was a cowboy to whom the cowherd came first and foremost.

By the time the Korean War began as a “police action”, according to the politicians, Ben knew every nook and cranny of the Hacienda Kino and what spots various cows had chosen for their favorite grazing. He also knew where they chose to have their calves. “Riding for the brand” came easy for Ben Norris.

It was a great surprise to Ben when Harry Sinclair informed him that he had put the ranch up for sale because he had been called back into the Navy. He was a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve. Ben barely knew about the Korean situation because he rarely listened to his radio except for music, and that was seldom because he was in the saddle most of the time.

Harry told Ben about the draft and that he would probably find himself in the Army shortly. Harry also told Ben about the benefits to becoming a sailor rather than a soldier getting shot at. Ben was sad to leave the ranch that he had come to know and on which he enjoyed working.

He didn’t have much stuff with him as he waited on the platform of the railroad station. The recruiter had supplied him with a ticket to Los Angeles and from there the Navy would send him to the Navy boot camp in San Diego. When the conductor called “all aboard” Ben stepped up into the train. He was no longer a cowboy, and he was not one bit happy about the change.

Ben found boot camp boring except for some of the classes that gave him a history of the Navy. When it came time to talk to a personnel man about what rate he would work in, he was glad that he would be going to some naval air squadron or aircraft carrier. He felt that after a life as a cowboy he would be best off to be on the largest ship the Navy had. He had also paid close attention to what Harry Sinclair had told him about the various ships in the Navy. Harry preferred carriers because he was tall and felt closed in on smaller ships.

Ben’s orders to the fleet sent him to North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, where he became a crewmember of an air anti submarine squadron that trained to fly from small aircraft carriers to perform “hunter/killer” operations. This involved two aircraft: one equipped with radar the other carrying the ordinance. Ben got used to life as a sailor and soon made third class petty officer. His first overseas cruise was on one of the fleet’s small carriers. Ben found the entire trip boring, except for ports of call like Yokosuka and Hong Kong, the British Crown Colony. However, he had made up his mind to grin and bear the four years as a sailor, and then go back to being a cowboy. The second cruise proved more interesting because he spent six months in a detachment on Atsugi Naval Air Station instead of at sea. During that time he became better acquainted with Japan, and found interesting places to visit, something he had never done as a cowboy because he had felt that cowboys are not tourists in spite of them being tourist attractions.

When his four-year enlistment came to an end, Ben happily packed his sea bag and bought a train ticket back to Arizona. During the trip he wondered if southern Arizona would be the same as when he had left for the Navy. His first glimpse of Tucson was the railroad station. He stood on the platform holding his sea bag. Glancing up and around the station building he thought, it still needs painting. He remembered the splotches where the paint had peeled when he left for the Navy. He went inside and deposited his sea bag in a locker.

He had planned what he would do once he had returned to southern Arizona. First on his list on getting discharged was to buy a used pickup truck so that he would have transportation. He had saved some money every month while he was in uniform and hoped that he had enough for a vehicle that would not require constant repair. Remembering an automobile dealer that had been within walking distance of the railroad station, he headed that way. The former dealer had moved to a busy avenue to the east of town, but a used car lot had taken over the facility. He found a used pickup with only three thousand miles on the speedometer. It was Ben’s first vehicle. He had always had the use of ranch pickups before. He had to give “General Delivery” as his address because he had no other to provide for the vehicle registration. He drove back to the railroad station and retrieved his sea bag. Driving through downtown Tucson, Ben was surprised to see that a lot of the stores he remembered were no longer there. The Valley National Bank building still remained as the tallest in the city at Congress Street and Stone Avenue. He was glad to see that familiar sight. Happily He also saw the other tall building, The Pioneer Hotel, still the same as he remembered. But, he had an odd feeling of being a stranger in the place where he grew up. He had planned to visit the old house on Maple Street where he had lived with his parents, but decided against doing that. He feared that seeing that house would bring back the sad memories of their deaths in an automobile accident shortly after he had left home to become a cowboy.

Ben Norris was wide-eyed when he drove out Speedway Boulevard and saw that now there were buildings crowding both sides of the street. As he continued driving he expected to reach the place where the pavement ended, but the pavement didn’t end where he remembered. Then he realized that he needed a place to spend the night. He thought about that for a while, and concluded that sleeping in the cab of the pickup would suffice. He continued driving until he arrived at Sabino Canyon. He was surprised to see a parking lot that had not been there when he left for the Navy. He parked the pickup and sat behind the wheel. His head was spinning from all the changes he had noticed and from the feeling of his being a stranger in his hometown.

Because of all the new sights, Ben had forgotten about eating so he returned to Speedway Boulevard to find a restaurant. After his supper, Ben returned to the parking lot at Sabino Canyon, took his Navy blankets out of his sea bag and curled up on the seat of the pickup. His thoughts turned to Hacienda Kino, and he decided that the following day would be the time to drive back to that ranch on the border.

The road south looked the same as he remembered. Ben felt better being in familiar country. The lost feeling he had had in Tucson with all the changes made since he had enlisted in the Navy had lessened so that he relaxed and looked at the rangeland on either side of the road. He noticed that the mesquite trees bordering the road had grown and the road grader had dug the roadbed deeper. He wondered if when the rains came the road would become a river. What struck him most was the dryness of the range. He had never seen southern Arizona so dry looking and the grasses so sparse. The road was wash boarded in some places. He didn’t mind that because he was happy to be on familiar ground. As he passed ranch roads he noticed some signs with unfamiliar names on them. The closer he drove to the Hacienda Kino road, the more familiar was the rangeland bordering the road. Then ahead he saw a billboard that was completely foreign to him. As he came closer he realized that the billboard was at the same corner where the Hacienda Kino road had entered the north/south road to the border. He braked in front of the billboard to read it. A picture in color of a movie star with a huge smile and wearing a Stetson with curled up brims looked straight to all who approached the billboard. The message came close to making Ben Norris scream with frustration and anger. “RANCHOS DE KINO, 40 acre RANCHETTES WHERE YOU CAN LIVE THAT LIFE YOU ALWAYS WANTED. NOW AVAILABLE AT THE SPECIAL LOW PRICES OFFERED BY ---“ and then the movie star’s name appeared in cursive written in thick shiny black paint. Ben sat immobile as he digested the words on the billboard. Driving past the billboard, he turned off the road onto the road that led to Hacienda Kino. “My god, they paved the road to the ranch!” he exclaimed as the pickup entered the right of way. He drove slowly, looking from right to left at the range he once rode when checking on the cattle and inspecting fences. He couldn’t get over that the ranch road had been paved. It was black-top with a painted white line down the middle. And, beyond the pavement the rangeland looked so wilted that he wondered what was happening in the cattle business. He speeded up to cover the three miles as soon as possible because he was anxious to see the old ranch buildings again. But, all he saw were new houses that didn’t seem to fit on the old land grant. The houses were large and had wide verandas and paved driveways up to wrought iron gates all of which were closed and locked.

Arriving where the headquarters had once dominated the landscape, Ben saw a cluster of the large new houses, but the barn was gone as were the old mesquite corrals and the windmill that pumped water from the well to supply the house and corrals. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He stopped the pickup in front of the only building he recognized. The old headquarters house where Harry and Kate had lived had a big sign in the front yard that said “OFFICE”.

Ben sat behind the steering wheel, staring out of the windshield in disbelief. A man wearing a cheap looking cowboy hat came out of the old ranch house. He wore his denim trousers tucked into the tops of his cheap-looking cowboy boots. His shirt was a bright plaid short sleeved garment with imitation pearl snaps. His forearms were tattooed with long-legged dancing girls. Ben wondered if this aberration had once been a sailor.

“Howdy y’all,” the man said with an obvious affected accent. “Can I help you pick out a Kino Ranchette?”

Ben stayed in the pickup, but rolled down the window. “No thanks,” he said. “I worked here once, but it don’t look the same.”

“Well, step out of your pickup, I’d love to hear about what life was like here before the sub dividers came along.”

“I’m kinda in a hurry, if you don’t mind,” Ben said, and started the motor.

He steered the pickup around so he went out the same way he came in, and drove down the ranch road to the north/south road to and from the border. He didn’t notice the big houses on his way out because he kept his eyes focused completely on the pavement. He thought about the cattle carrying capacity when he had worked there. It was around eighty acres for a cow. Now, he thought, it was forty acres for a house.

Back in Tucson Ben went to a small bar where he had, on occasion, stopped in for a beer or two. El Caballo Bayo looked the same on the outside, but once inside he saw that someone had completely changed the interior. He stopped just inside the entrance, turned around and walked back to his pickup.

Again, after sleeping in his pickup again parked in the Sabino Canyon parking lot space he found a small café and had breakfast. From there he drove to the livestock auction because it was Saturday, sale day. He hoped to find some cowman that was looking for a cowboy.

The auction barn had seen a few changes in his absence, but the sale ring looked the same as it did when he would sit in the stands watching for Hacienda Kino’s consignments to go through the ring and sell. Ben knew he would be early for the sale, but he figured to sit in a booth in the coffee shop to see if he recognized any of the cowmen he used to know before the Korean War interrupted his life. He sat in the coffee shop until the auction began. In the stands above where the order buyers sat in chairs around the ring, Ben sat patiently watching every man wearing a Stetson that came into the auction barn. He recognized a few old timers, but none of the men he knew showed up that day.

The following day he spent the morning in the lobby of a hotel that many cowmen frequented when they came to town. Again, there was nobody he knew. The following week Ben was determined to go out into the country and try to find a job. He drove the eighty miles to Willcox where he hung around the shipping corrals looking for a cowman that would hire him as a cowboy. He met no one. The country around Willcox was as dry as that at Hacienda Kino. He turned around and returned to Tucson. Once again he attended the livestock auction in Tucson and asked the auctioneer if he knew any cowman needing help. In the middle of the week he drove to Arivaca where he knew there were several ranches in the vicinity that hired cowboys from time to time. Ben stopped at the only bar in town to find it mostly occupied by what they once called “Townies”. There were no ranchers there. His discouragement exploded when he stopped by a ranch with whom Hacienda Kino had neighbored during gathers and shipping. The rancher was hard put to recall Ben’s name. But, the man mentioned that the cattle business had come on hard times with the severe drought that had left the rangeland dry as a bone. The rancher told Ben, ”Hell’s fire, my cows have ate all the little rocks and started on the big ones.” Ben drove back to Tucson and thought hard about his situation.

This drought has hit the cowmen hard. From what I can see, they have sold down their herds because of the drought. They are spending a lot of money just keeping what cattle they still have alive, so they don’t have any spare cash to pay cowboys. The cows I saw selling at the auction looked thin and gaunt, not thrifty like Hacienda Kino’s cattle once looked. I’ll bet I could drive around here for months and never find a job until the rains begin again. Even the weathermen don’t have a clue when that will happen.

Ben took out the papers the Navy separation center had given him and looked them over. He stopped and read one paragraph over three times. It said that he had thirty days to re-enlist and retain his rate as a third class petty officer and also receive a re-enlistment bonus. He wondered if he went back to his squadron on North Island in San Diego and re-enlisted, if they would re-assign him as squadron master-at-arms, the job he had before and enjoyed.

He had plenty of money left to get back to California. He could sell his pickup when he got there. The following morning, he filled the gasoline tank in the pickup, and drove away from Tucson toward the West Coast. Ten hours later he parked the pickup in a parking lot across from “Fleet Landing”. Leaving his sea bag locked in the cab of the pickup after wiggling into his uniform, he crossed the street and went to look at the liberty boat schedule. He found out that he had only a twenty-minute wait for the boat to North Island. He stood on the upper part of the landing leaning on a low wall. He felt like he had made a good decision, because other than being a cowboy, he knew no other way to make a living.

A liberty boat arrived, but it was not from North Island. He thought it might be from a cruiser that was anchored in the harbor. The passengers began stepping out of the boat and onto the dock. From there they walked up a ramp that changed angles with the tide. Ben saw a full commander approaching. The officer lifted his eyes and Ben recognized the former owner of Hacienda Kino, Harry Sinclair.

Amazed and surprised, Ben lifted his arm and waved, hoping Harry would recognize him. “Harry Sinclair, remember me, Ben Norris?”

The commander stopped and squinted at Ben. “Well, I’ll be darned, Ben. This is quite a surprise,” Harry said and shook Ben’s hand warmly.

“That is for sure,” Ben said. “I see that you are now a full commander, congratulations.”

“Thanks. I guess they had to do something after calling me to active duty. I see you made petty officer. That’s good. Congratulations to you, too.&rrdquo;

“Thanks,” Ben said.

“This is great seeing you,” Harry said. “Let’s go over to that coffee shop at the foot of Broadway and catch up on the last four years.”

“That sounds fine to me,” Ben said. “I have all the time in the world.”

They turned left at the entrance to Fleet Landing and walked to the small coffee shop. They found a table and sat down while the waitress went for their coffee.

“I see you are still in uniform,” Harry said. “How do you like the Navy?”

“Actually, I am a civilian,” Ben said, and dropped his eyes to the tabletop. “I got discharged and went to Tucson to find work and there is nothing because of the drought they are having over there.”

“I have heard that range conditions are terrible,” Harry said.

“The cattle I saw go through the auction looked thin and I would say the cowmen are desperate to get them off the range. They are cheap, too.”

“I know they are cheap because Kate and I have been buying a lot of those drought cattle.”

“But, you sold Hacienda Kino and when I drove out there I came close to going crazy when I saw the paved road and the houses perched on forty acre lots.”

“That bothers me, but I did make a ton of money because it was all deeded land. And, just think of what that sale saved me from when the drought hit?”

“Anyhow, I drove back here to re-enlist even though I would much rather get a job as a cowboy than sail around on these steel monsters. You said that you and Kate are buying drought cattle. How can you do that and be a full commander in the Navy?”

“Kate knows cattle as well as I do and she does most of the work. We bought a wonderful ranch in the Kansas Flint Hills where we are putting these cattle. I fly up there once a month. I am an admiral’s aid, and he understands my need to pay attention to business. I have resigned my commission and will be separated in three weeks. I can see that the country is messing around in Viet Nam and I don’t want to spend any more time away from the ranching business.”

“I have never been to Kansas,” Ben said. “But I have heard that it is fine cow country.”

“It is a feast for my eyes after ranching in southern Arizona,” Harry said. “Would you forget about re-enlisting and go to work with us in Kansas?”

“I have forgotten about re-enlisting already. Just give me directions to the ranch there and I will gas up my pickup as soon as I get out of this uniform.”