by: Wes Ishmael

Had his Mom still been alive, Hooter knew she would have been prouder than a hound with a coon up a tree.

There was Bugsy, riding old Blackie around the corral, no bridle, no halter and certainly no saddle.

Hooter's Mom, Miss Virginia, absolutely loved horses. She'd come by it honest, being born and raised on the Z Bar Ranch in Barber County, Kansas. Lord, the stories she could tell and the way she could tell them.

Miss Virginia was always more independent than a renegade cow, too, just like Bugsy. And she knew how to laugh, no matter the situation. That's why Hooter figured she'd enjoy what he was seeing.

Just about the end of the school year, Bugsy seemed to grow more sickly, at least until it was too late to catch the bus. This seemed to be one of those days. Claire, Bugsy's Mom and Hooter's finance had to be in Lubbock. Hooter had planned to stick close to the shop catching up on some repairs, so watching her was a good fit.

Bugsy hadn't been there 20 minutes when Hooter lifted his welding helmet, she was gone and Hooter knew just where to find her.

After he watched her and Blackie enjoying one another for a few minutes, he hollered, “You're sure you don't feel up to going to school? I can take you.”

Bugsy and Blackie stopped to look at him, Bugsy's glare mixed with indignation: “I may appear active, but I assure you I don't feel well enough for school.”

Hooter had to hide his laughter behind the welding helmet.

Joys worth the Pain

Just before Miss Virginia died, she'd finished a manuscript about her early years at the Z Bar. Hooter hadn't had the heart to look at it since. But he remembered a school story his Mom had told that he thought Bugsy would enjoy. So, when they went in for dinner, Hooter dug out the notebook and found the story. This is what they read:

The little one-room Aetna schoolhouse stood about a quarter of a mile west of the store and that was where we all went to school. What a joy to be able to stay at home and go to school. I will never forget how homesick I was as a 6-year-old away from my family. We stayed with lovely people but it was horrible to be separated from my folks. I had a twin brother and sister (Jack and Betty) four years younger than me and I used to think they must lay around with their mouths open to collect every germ they could ingest. Mom would call and tell me, through my tears, that Bud and Betty had the measles, the chicken-pox, etc., etc., etc., and I couldn't come home. Those two had everything but blackleg that year, so it was a lonely time for a little girl who just wanted to go home.

Our first school teacher was Betty Baxter and she boarded with us. She was a nice lady and we enjoyed her. She did a fine job for the district but I'm sure it had to be very hard for a young woman to live on a cattle ranch that was 25 miles from the nearest town, and teach a crew of 12 kids everything from grade one to grade eight. Like Brylcreem, a little dab will do you. Miss Baxter tossed in the towel at the end of one year and we then inherited a Miss Lukens.

Miss Lukens was very high strung, very much in love and the least likely candidate in the whole wide world to teach a country school. What we learned that year was very minimal, unless you count putting on a mock wedding educational. My sister, Betty, was the bride and Jerry Buchanen was the groom, and even to those little 6-year-olds, the whole concept was bizarre.

Being so high-strung and excitable, Miss Lukens was prone to fainting spells when she got upset…and she got upset often. Her first seizure caused quite a stir, leading to the oldest boy in the school, Russell Davis, making a pony-express ride to the Phillips 66 Booster Station a mile and a half south to get help. Emmit Holdaway, a bear of a man, was the one who came to the rescue. Miss ‘Shriek' was feeling better in no time after his ministrations. Another fainting spell transpired a few days later, but the results were very different and far more effective. Not one student left their desk, there was no talking, we just kept studying. Poor Miss Lukens had to rally on her own and seemed quite put out that no one was even mildly interested. After another spell or two, with the same results, the lady underwent a miraculous cure and her fainting was no more.

That year would have been unbearable except for the Wells kids. The Wells family lived southwest of the schoolhouse a few miles in an absolute forest of trees. One bounced along a sandy pasture road and then entered the trees and into a land of almost fairytale quality. After meandering along the shadowed trail (and that description does fit it) you came upon the homestead which was a trip back in time. It was a beautiful old log home that was literally covered with vines. Trumpet vines were everywhere and were loaded down with the most blossoms I have ever seen. Vernon and Bea Wells lived there with their family of four girls. Marian was my sister Marie's age. Elaine was my age, Ann was the age of our twins and the youngest girl was Ellen. Wells' had cattle and lots of horses. Each of the kids had their own personal mount which they rode to school. The schoolhouse had an open-faced shed where horses could be tied if it was storming, but they mostly ran the school yard, dragging long lead ropes so the kids could catch them again. Some of the horses had good dispositions but others were holy-terrors, so nobody went inside the schoolhouse until the Wells' were unsaddled and their horses were turned loose. After school we stayed until the Wells' were saddled up and headed home. I doubt that we were as important to their well-being as we thought we were, but I remember it as a fun time.

When the weather got too bad for us to walk our mile and a half to school, my Dad sent us on horseback, too, but one of the boys went with us and took the horses back home. Dad always said he didn't want to leave the horses at school because the fence was so poor, but we knew he didn't want the school kids messing with them or them to be thrown in with anybody else's horses.

We nearly always walked to school. In the dead of winter, I remember how cold we got and when the snow was deep we were wet by the time we got there. The big old heating stove was always blazing away and the kids pulled their chairs around it and stuck their feet up close to try to get warm. The stove was always covered with drying, stinking, wet socks and gloves as we tried to put ourselves back together again after our ordeal.

It was about this time of year when the enterprising Miss Lukens decided we should have a hot lunch program. Our folks sent whatever money that was needed and Miss Lukens fixed one of the only three dishes that she was capable of making. The first one was chili, which tasted so strange that one had to wonder if it came out of an Alpo can. The second entrée was pinto beans which she didn't even bother to sort the rocks out of. Entrée number three was macaroni and cheese — her favorite — with cheese that would string so far that you had to stab it in two to separate it from the cooking pot. Each concoction was more horrible than the one before, but the lady insisted that we eat up and be strong!

The snow didn't get too deep for us to eat outside where we could get some air, and where we could also carefully scrape that despicable food down a prairie-dog hole where it couldn't hurt anybody. We must have poisoned half the prairie dog population in Barber County. If they didn't die, I'm sure they had stomach problems for the rest of their lives.

In between laughs, Bugsy asked Hooter why his eyes were watering.

“Just remembering.”

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