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THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOOTER MCCORMICK -- SPROUTING ANGEL WINGS

By: Wes Ishmael

The toughest thing about loving someone is the hurt that comes with losing them.

That's what Hooter was thinking as he made the trip to Fort Worth, his heart heavier than an anvil. One of his best pals had just lost his Mom, a beautiful lady Hooter had become well acquainted with over the years. Like Martha in the Bible, Miss Virginia was one of those rare individuals who always knew how to separate the important from the immediate where her kids and their friends were concerned.

When Hooter arrived, he was trying to count the number of horse shows, judging contests and ropings Miss Virginia—Virginia Lee Alley (Ishmael)—had driven Hooter and his pal to before they were old enough to drive themselves, legally at least. There was no telling.

It was the trauma of a horribly busted and dislocated ankle—results of a fall—that had finally been the tipping point for Miss Virginia, who had been ailing for several years.

“You know, she was tougher than boot leather through the very end.”

“I wouldn't have expected less,” said Hooter.

“When they were pulling her ankle back into place, I was holding her hand, looking at her, at the wall, at anything but that ankle. It was torn clear around. Mom studied the whole procedure though. When the doctor left she told me, ‘You know, I didn't think he'd be able to get all of that put back inside, but he did.'”

Hooter had to smile. That was Miss Virginia; she could always find the humor, and she was always most concerned with making sure those around her were OK.

“I was just reading through this again.” He handed Hooter a bright red notebook, heavy with pages. “She finished it a couple of weeks ago. I carried her the last draft a couple of days before she fell.”

Hooter's pal had told him all about the book Miss Virginia had been working on for several years, especially since she'd gotten so sick a year earlier. The doctors thought she was finished then. It was the story of her growing up on the old Z Bar Ranch in Barber County, Kansas where her Dad, T.O. Alley was foreman for years and years. She'd been born in the bunkhouse of the neighboring ranch that her uncle, Lester Alley, would eventually manage.

“Go ahead and look. Read it out loud.”

Hooter opened to the first page and read:

Everybody on earth has their favorite spot. Cottage Creek on the Z Bar Ranch is still mine.

This was an area east of where we lived at the Hodge Ranch headquarters. To a young girl, it seemed like the doorway to everything east. The soil there is the red clay that is so prevalent in the Gyp Hills. A little creek runs through it with a goodly number of trees and Hackberry bushes. The smell of Sagebrush is strong in the air and the birds are always singing. Its peace and quietude puts your soul back together again and you know that all is right with the world.

I go there often in my mind. It's my refuge in the storms of life. If that isn't a blessing then I don't know what is.

Hooter had to brush away a tear.

“I read it to her, cover-to-cover, that last night,” said his buddy. “You could tell she was hearing it, and enjoying it. Go to page 43.”

Hooter did so and read, starting where his friend indicated:

Don McGrath and Daddy were quite a worry to my Mother. Both being top hands, the jokes they played on one another bordered on the unreal and their survival was nothing short of miraculous. When they busted a cow to doctor her, one would tell the other one, “Don't take the rope off of her until I get to my horse.” You know the end to that story. The minute they headed for their horse, off came the rope and the race was on. I have heard my Mother plead with them to discontinue this stupid play before someone got seriously hurt. Amid giggles they would assure her that they would, but we all knew that the next time the results would be the same. We could only hope there would be some tin around a windmill or a tree to save their ornery hides. If two men ever enjoyed one another, those two did and I never remember them having an unkind word. It was a special friendship that would last forever. They were always “Ma” and “Pop” to Don and I'm sure my folks couldn't have loved him more. Don was a second Dad to me, and in my eyes, he was always tree-top tall. He taught me a lot. I used to ride behind him on a white horse that we called Blue John and we would go bring the milk-cows in. I would wave my arms and say, “Look Don, I can fly!” He always told me that if I planned my trip to Heaven on the back of that old horse, I was in for a bumpy ride.

You had to smile.

“Now, look at page 56.”

Hooter began to read Miss Virginia's account of one of the many round-ups at the Z Bar:

It was always fun to listen to the good-natured kidding that went on at the table; good, hard working ranchmen that enjoyed one another's company. Invariably there would be someone that had gotten themselves in a pickle that morning and they were usually the brunt of their jokes. On one such occasion, they had been rounding up at headquarters and one young cow had lost all patience with the activities of the day and promptly went into a plum thicket by the house and sulled. It was an open thicket so several riders took their lariat ropes down and persuaded her to rethink her course of action. Instead of returning to the herd as planned, she turned bunch-quitter and hot-footed it for the creek to the west. Of course, a wild scramble ensued and she again took up residence in a huge plum thicket in that area. The thicket was so dense that a horse couldn't penetrate it, so my cagey little Daddy dismounted and went in after her with his spurs jingling. They jingled even louder as the cow brought him out again a whole lot faster than he went in, for by now the cow was madder than a hornet. He couldn't get back to his horse and his buddies were laughing too hard to help him. So, Dad headed for the creek with the cow in hot pursuit. Daddy was about five foot seven, but his legs were short and the cow was gaining. He flew under the low branch of an elm tree and latched onto it, pulling his legs up just as the irate cow sped beneath him like a tornado. He let himself down with a chuckle and to the whoops and hollers of his friends…but wait, here she comes again. This game went on until finally the cow got so mad that she dropped dead in her tracks. Needless to say, Pappy was the talk of the table that day. My Mother was the only one who felt sorrow for that poor cow. The remorse ended there, for there wasn't one of those cowboys who thought any other climax would have been appropriate for a cow with such a sorry attitude.

Hooter couldn't help laughing. “Lord, that was your Mom, sure enough. She always did have a way with words and describing stuff.”

Hooter's friend was smiling, too, even as gravity pulled a tear down his cheek.

“She put together a summary in the back about her favorite horses. But there's a great section in the book, too. Go to page 58.”

And Hooter read again:

In one of his weaker moments, Daddy bought us a Shetland pony complete with saddle, bridle, harness and cart. She was a round little bay mare with the typical Shetland disposition. Her name was Bird but it should have been Satan. That adorable looking little creature was capable of more deviltry than you could shake a stick at. When you saddled her, she tried to bite you. When you mounted her, she tried to bite you. Once you were aboard, you could draw a straight line to the nearest tree limb where she tried to rake you off. She had two speeds, slow and stop, and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. Under harness, she would pull the cart to our mailbox and back with all four of us aboard (Miss Virginia and her siblings). Mother loved these excursions for we were out of her hair for what seemed like a half a day while that lazy beast plodded her three miles. She was all but dead under saddle and harness, but turn her out of the corral and she ran and bucked like she was a colt again...

Bird was not the only character in the horse pasture. There was a big black horse by the name of Joe that kept the place livened up as well. Dad had bought Joe from our neighbor, Joe Summers, and I swear, their dispositions were a great deal alike. Joe the horse could open any gate on the place, he could walk any auto gate, and he delighted in opening the yard gate and bringing all 60 of his pasture mates in with him. We slept on a screened in porch on the south side of the ranch house in the summertime and it was quite a sensation to wake up in the middle of a stomping, milling horse herd. Joe would find a loose end of screen, take it in his teeth, and rip huge sections of screen off the porch. This really endeared him to my Dad, who would decorate him with anything he could get his hands on. Once he smacked Joe over the head with my little pink parasol that I had just gotten for my birthday. It never opened again.

Another favorite, Stubby, loved moving cattle when baby calves were involved. As those calves tired on the drive, Stubby would take his nose and gently nudge them along. Daddy took Bud with him when he was quite small and Stubby was the one to carry our “precious cargo”. Bud wasn't very big when he decided to head a cow one day and she took off over a hill where Daddy couldn't see them. In a few short minutes, Stubby topped the hill again, without Bud, frantically whinnying for Dad to come and then disappeared down the hill again. When Dad got there, Bud was sitting dazed in some weeds. Stubby had his nose on Bud and was slowly pivoting his body around to keep the curious cattle away from him. Bud had made it down the hill in fine shape, but what looked like weeds was actually a ditch and Stubby had no choice but to jump it. Bud didn't make the jump, but his faithful steed had the situation well in hand.

“Your mama did love horses,” said Hooter. “She knew good ones, too.”

There was a long silence as both men thought back to all of the horses, all of the years, all of the love.

“Now, read the last page,” said Hooter's friend.

When life gets you down, let your mind wander back to Cottage Creek where the moon is always shining bright, the coyotes are always talking and the birds are chirping their prayers, and don't forget that cow off in the sage bawling for her calf. God lives on Cottage Creek. I'll meet you at the bridge.

“Amen, Mama. Amen.”

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