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The Time It Never Rained
RIO SECO WAS TOO SMALL TO AFFORD A PROFESSIONAL manager for its one-room Chamber of Commerce. The part-time volunteer, elected because no one else wanted the job, made his living selling an independent brand of gasoline two cents under the majors though he bought it from the same tank truck that serviced half the stations in town. A man of wit, some people thought, he had erected a big red-and-white sign on the highway at the city limits:
WELCOME TO RIO SECO HOME OF 3,000 FRIENDLY PEOPLEAND THREE OLD CRANKS!
Farther inside the city limits, half-hidden between a Ford billboard and one for Pepsi-Cola, he had placed another sign:
THIS IS GOD'S COUNTRY DON'T DRIVE THROUGH IT LIKE HELL
This cattle, sheep, and farming town was much the same as fifty others dotted along the interminable east-west highways which speed traffic across the great monotonous stretches of western Texas ranch country. To an impatient motorist hunting a cooler place to light before dark, these dusty little towns are all cut from the same tiresome pattern and, despite the signboard, a long way from heaven.
Like most of them, Rio Seco had old roots. It had been born out of necessity, a trading place for sprawling cow outfits, for scattered sheep camps and industrious German dryland farmers who had come west with their wagons, their plows, and a compulsive will to build something. The town long ago had made its growth and found its natural level. Now it held steady, gaining no ground but losing none. Oil companies had come and punched their holes and found them dry. They had gone again, leaving dreams of quick riches to drift away on the arid wind like the cotton-white clouds that promised rain and failed to deliver.
Life still depended on two fundamentals: crops planted by the hand of man and grass planted by the hand of God.
Give us rain, they said at Rio Seco, and it makes no difference who is in the White House.
If one thing set the town apart, it was probably the treespale-green mesquites and massive, gnarled live oaks, rustling cottonwoods and shady pecans, watered by a hundred windmills whose towers stood tall above a timid skyline. Modern municipal mains provided purer water for drinking and cooking, but most of the older generation clung to wells for yards and gardens and trees. For a man who has often turned his face to the hot breath of drouth, the sight of a windmill towerits big steel fan clanking patiently and pumping up water clear and coolsomehow reaches deep and touches something in his soul.
The town had three culturesAnglo, German, andMexican. The first two had largely merged through the yearsbeef and beans and apple strudel. The third remained unassimilated, except perhaps in Rio Seco's unhurried pace of living. Most of the Anglos were addicted to Mexican food, and most of the Mexicans loved football, but these were superficial things.
Many of the older rock homes had a no-nonsense squared-off solidity the Germans had brought from their original settlements in the Pedernales River section of the hill country. Across the railroad tracks, beyond roads dusty from passage of livestock trucks on their way to the shipping pens, lay the Mexican part of townageless adobes and small frame shacks, and a fair number of modern GI houses built since the war. The old and the new stood side by side in sharp contrast: a wrinkled, ancient Mexican working up adobe bricks out of straw and mud in a barefoot method known to the fathers of his grandfathers, while next door a three-man crew with electric saws cut raw lumber for a new frame house. Two small brown-faced boys sat on a forebearing Mexican burro, their black eyes alive with curiosity as they watched an older brother tuning the motor of a hotrod.
For the ranchman, business centered around Emmett Rodale's old stone bank and Jim Sweet's feedstore-wool warehouse, a long, cool, cavernous building of concrete tile. There in round, well-packed jute bags wedged between steel poles and stacked nearly to the high ceiling lay stored the gray-white fleeces that for three generations had been a cornerstone of Rio Seco's economy.
For the farmer, business focused on the same bank, the cotton gin and a small grain elevator with twin steel tubes that stood taller than anything else in town except the sun-catching silver water tower emblazoned with crudely painted red letters: SRS '51.
In the second floor of the rock-fronted courthouse was a room which in recent years had emerged as another important economic fact of life: the county office of the federal PMA. Next to rain, perhaps, it had become the mostimportant fact. Here the man of the land came to declare his crop acreage, his past year's plantings. Here he was told how much land he would be allowed to seed in cotton, in grain sorghums, in whatever other crops might be under federal control. Here he came for price support and to receive checks to help him pay for terraces and water-spreading, for water wells and surface tanks, for battling back the prickly pear and thorny mesquite.
Here he sold his freedom bit by bit, and was paid for it on the installment plan.
March Nicholson, the county PMA officer, stood at the open window, looking down on the freshly mowed courthouse lawn, the buried sprinkler system showering green bermuda grass dotted by patches of dying winter rye. It always irritated him the way people parked haphazardly around the courthouse curb, ignoring the town ordinances, if indeed there were any. Across the street under a live-oak tree, half blocking the driveway to Nicholson's rented home, stood a pickup truck with a Hereford cow tied in the sideboarded bed and a saddled horse in an open-topped trailer hitched behind it. Horse droppings had tumbled over the tailgate and onto the ground; Nicholson would have to use his shovel tonight. He cursed under his breath. In the back of another pickup waited two Border Collie sheepdogs, resting but alert-eyed, watching a farmer pull up in a bobtail truck with two big tractor tires and several sacks of planting seed.
Nicholson's baleful eye was pulled away from the horse droppings by a brush-scarred green pickup pulling into an open parking space.
"Well, I'll be damned. I wish you'd look who's come to the meeting."
His district supervisor pushed to his feet from a chair in the courtroom's jury box where he had slouched to read a copy of the morning San Angelo paper. He watched a heavy, graying ranchman step out of the pickup and limp up the concrete sidewalk toward the front steps of the courthouse. He saw nothing which made that man lookdifferent from the couple of dozen stockmen and farmers already gossiping in the courtroom.
"I don't know him. Is he somebody special?"
"He's Charlie Flagg."
The name meant nothing to the supervisor. "One of the rich ones?" he guessed. In this part of the country it was often hard to tell the rich man from the poor one by looking at him. The rich man was as likely to be wearing patched trousers and runover boots as the most destitute Mexican cowboy in town. One could not afford to put up a front and the other did not have to.
Nicholson shook his head. "No, not rich. Charlie Flagg is one of those operators in the middle ground ... smaller than a lot of them. You've seen that sign on the edge of town, the one about the three old cranks? Charlie Flagg is Crank Number One."
The supervisor watched the ranchman pause on the front steps to swap howdies with a deputy sheriff. The deputy, who probably did not swing a leg across a horse's back twice a year, was dressed in a neatly tailored Western shirt and tight-legged cowboy pants, shiny high-heeled boots and a nicely creased Stetson hat. The rancher, probably on horseback half his waking hours, wore a nondescript straw hat beaten badly out of shape and a pair of old black boots, his baggy khaki trousers stuffed carelessly into their tops. There was a lesson in this somewhere, the supervisor thought; someday he was going to reason it out.
"Gives you trouble, does he, March?"
"No trouble ... or anything else. Never sticks his hard head into my office. He's one of those old mosshorns who thinks he made it all by himself and he doesn't need anybody. I've tried to get him to go into some of our programs. You ought to hear him snort. Says the government didn't help him when he was getting started and he doesn't need it now."
"Then I'd simply forget about him if I were you. Some people you can't change; you just have to outlive them."
"Charlie Flagg is too contrary to die; he'll outlive us all."
Nicholson's face twisted as he looked at the men who sat in little groups scattered around the big courtroom, talking weather and crops and prices. He had sent out five hundred postcards announcing the meeting; this looked like about all the crowd he was going to get.
"It's frustrating," he complained. "A man devotes his life to service, and this is the response they give him. Sometimes I wish I was selling cars in San Antonio."
The supervisor said, "The rest'll come in when it's time to get their checks."
Nicholson walked down the aisle and out into the hallway to see if there were any laggards. He saw Charlie Flagg come up the steps, laboring a little because of a slightly game leg. Part of a postcard stuck out of one shirt pocket. Nicholson shoved his hand forward. "Mister Flagg, when I sent you that card I had no hope you would actually come to the meeting."
Flagg gripped Nicholson's hand hard enough to bring a stab of pain, but he looked puzzled. "Meetin'? What meetin'?"
"The meeting to explain the changes in the farm program."
Flagg shrugged his heavy shoulders. "They change the farm program the way I change socks. Before you can get your meetin' over with, they'll be callin' you from Washington to tell you it's all different."
Nicholson sagged a little. "You didn't come for the meeting, then?"
Flagg shook his head. "I come up huntin' the judge. They sent me a call for jury duty and I got a shearin' crew comin' tomorrow. Court can wait, but a shearin' crew won't."
Nicholson saw that the postcard in Flagg's pocket was not the one he had mailed. "Well, I still say you'll be in to see me someday, Mister Flagg."
Flagg's gaze was steady and without compromise. "What I can't do for myself, I'll do without."
A short, stocky ranchman came up the stairs in time to catch the last of it. He paused to spit a long stream of brown tobacco juice at a hallway cuspidor, getting most of it in. "You're preachin' again, Charlie," he grinned, "and this ain't even church."
Charlie Flagg turned, a little embarrassed. "Hello, Rounder. I didn't go to preach, but he asked me and I told him."
Rounder Pike laid a rough hand on Flagg's shoulder. "You're fartin' against the wind, Charlie. We've got used to government money like a kid gets used to candy. Most people wouldn't quit takin' it now. Them as did would go right on payin' the same old taxes and not get nothin' back. We're like a woman that's been talked into a little taste of sin and found out she likes it. You'd just as well join the crowd. You're payin' the freight anyway."
"Never is an awful long time." Pike gripped Flagg's shoulder, then walked on into the courtroom.
Nicholson motioned toward the door. "There's plenty of room, Mister Flagg."
Flagg started to turn away. "You'll find, Mister Nicholson, that ranchers are contrary people. And old ranchers are awful contrary." He limped down the hall toward the office of the county judge.
Nicholson's supervisor had come out into the hallway to listen. He said, "One of those rugged individualists, isn't he?"
"Someday he'll just be a ragged individualist. He's standing still while time goes on by. But he'll be in to see me one of these days. He'll come in like all the rest."
The supervisor frowned, watching the rancher go through an open door. "Somehow, I hope he never does."
Nicholson's eyebrows went up.
The supervisor said, "He's gone out of style, but theworld will be a poorer place when it loses the last of his kind."
"You sympathize with him?"
"I pity him, a little. A man can get awfully lonesome standing out there all by himself."
Copyright © 1973, 1984 by Elmer Kelton