The clang of the blacksmith's hammer on hot iron sounded way before I actually came in sight of Hank Beard's shop. It was a cool February morning in 1867, but Hank was stripped to the waist and had sweat on his forehead. I pulled Sunny to a halt just at the edge of the shop roof, and Hank stopped banging when he saw me. "In kind of early, aren't you Earl?"
"Yep. We're going after some wild cattle out west of Fort Belknap, and I want you make me half a dozen branding irons. I don't want my riders carrying running irons. Seems to me that's a good way to get hung in the right, or wrong, company."
"Okay, and by the way, are you looking for any hands?"
"You bet I am. You figuring to throw down your hammer?"
"Not on your life! I tried that cowboyin' when I was a youngster, and it was a way too much work for me. No, I just happen to know a couple of young men who're hangin' around town looking for work."
"You vouch for them?" I asked.
"I can for one of them. Moses Alstrom grew up south of here down around Waco. My family's got a farm down there, and his daddy was one of my daddy's field hands before the war. Moses is a good boy, about sixteen or seventeen years old. He's got a friend with him from that same country."
I thought a minute. "That means neither of them has any experience around cattle, doesn't it?"
"Yes, but they can learn. Were you born with cow knowledge?"
I laughed at that. "Of course I was, just like you were born with the knowledge of how to make a horseshoe. Tell you what, Hank. I'm going over to Wilson's store, so how about rounding the boys up and sending them to see me there?"
"I'll do that. When do you want your branding irons?"
"Think you can have them by Saturday? We plan to leave out early Monday morning."
"Sure. I'll have 'em done."
"Fine. I'll pay you now, and pick up the irons when we come in Saturday."
I rode on over to Wilson's store, dismounted and tied the horse to the rack there. I paused for a minute and thought about the first time I'd entered this store when I got home from the war. That was when I'd first met Gloria, at least the grownup version, the prettiest girl in all of Texas as far as I was concerned. That had been a life-changing day for me, and for her. Gloria and I married later that year, and we now had one child and another on the way. I smiled and shook my head in enjoyment at the memories.
Elmer Wilson, my good friend and father-in-law, was standing behind the counter. "Morning, Earl. What brings you into town so early?"
"Had to order some branding irons from Hank. We're heading out Monday to chase wild cattle in Throckmorton County."
"Another cattle drive coming up?"
"Yep, but this time we're going north to Kansas and the railroad that's building there. I figure if we can round up a bunch of wild cattle to add to what we already have, along with the Snaketrack and Rafter G contribution, we'll have enough to make the drive worthwhile."
Elmer rubbed his chin. "When do you figure to make the drive, Earl?"
"The last week of April. Grass should be coming on good by then. Since this is February, we figure to hunt cattle up around Fort Belknap until mid-March, slap the Shamrock trail brand on their sides, buy some more from ranchers around here, and head north."
"Sounds like a lot of work, but then it's goin' to take a lot of work to get Texas back on her feet. Have Spooner come in and give me a list of what he'll need, and I'll have the supplies ready."
"I'll do that. By the way, the branding irons will be done on Saturday, and I thought I'd bring Glory and Ralph in with me to pick them up. Could we borrow a bed that night and go to church with you and Flora Sunday morning?"
"You don't even have to ask. It's been way too long since I've seen my daughter and grandson, so we'll look forward to it."
I'd been very lucky with my in-laws. Elmer and Flora had stepped right in to be nearly as much parents to me as they were to Gloria, since my mother and father were both dead by the time I returned from the war in 1865.
As we were talking about how much Ralph had grown since his grandfather had seen him last, maybe three weeks before, two young men came into the store holding their hats in their hands. "Mr. Lamar?" one of them said.
I looked them over, and they looked pretty shabby, though that wasn't too strange in Texas at this time. "That's me," I responded. "Are you the boys Hank Beard was telling me about?"
"I reckon we are," the young man said. The other boy didn't say anything.
"I'm Britton Shelley, and this here's Moses Alstrom." He indicated the quiet young man standing next to him. Alstrom nodded.
"I understand you two are lookin' for work. Ever been around longhorn cattle?"
"Not a lot, Mr. Lamar, but we're fast learners," Shelley replied, and Alstrom looked hopeful.
I smiled at that sally. "Well, boys, I'll give you a tryout. I'm fixin' to take a crew out to Throckmorton County to gather wild cattle for a drive north later on. If you want to work, I'll pay you twenty dollars a month and found."
They both beamed. "Thank you, Mr. Lamar," Shelley said. "We'll work real hard."
I laughed. "Son, you don't have any idea how hard you're going to work. You'll earn every penny of your wages, and then some. Now, do you have horses?"
They hung their heads, I guess thinking if that was a condition of the job they were unemployed again. "No, sir."
"Well, don't worry about it. Be here at the store Sunday afternoon and you can go back to the ranch with my family. Got any money?"
Again, "No, sir."
I dug out a ten dollar gold piece and gave it to Shelley. "This will give you $5.00 a piece, and I'll deduct it from your first paychecks."
Their faces lighted up. "Thank you, sir!" Shelley said.
They put their hats on and started to leave, but I stopped them. "It doesn't really make much difference, but I'd like to know if Moses can talk."
He gave me a brilliant smile, his teeth bright white against his dusky skin. "Yes, sir, I can."
We all laughed, and the boys went through the door. Elmer shook his head. "Looks to me like you've got your work cut out making cowboys out of those two."
"Probably so, Elmer, but everybody has to start somewhere."
"How'd your horse hunt turn out, Earl? I know you and Pablo went out to West Texas a few weeks ago chasing broomtails."
"Went well, Elmer. I felt kind of like those two boys that were just here, though. Those friends of Pablo's never made a wrong move, and of course Pablo is the best horseman in several counties. Still, I tried to hold my own. We came back with sixteen head of good horseflesh, and Pablo's got most of them ready to go by now."
Pablo Esperanza had come to the ranch looking for work, and Lady Luck had really smiled on us. Pablo had a way with horses that had to be seen to be believed. When I hired him, he brought his wife, Juanita, and baby boy, Ramon with him. They now made up part of the L Bar family, and Pablo made sure we had the best mounts in the county.