Eyes West — to Younger Beds
By 1946, our work around Ernest was beginning to
play out, and I had begun to toy with the idea that we should
move our fossil hunting to areas that were
too far to walk to and too rough to
drive back and forth every day. This would be new territory to us but one that Paul Miller and George
Sternberg had worked over along the
Wichita River before Lake Kemp had been put in in 1917. As things turned out, 1946 was a good time to think of
a new base camp, for this was the year that Ernest's house burned down. We did spend part of that season in
his pasture, but we also explored the area to the west with his help.
The house burned while he was riding fence and,
of course, no one was around to see it go or try to
stop it. His mother had been living with him
for a time and, now and then, one or another of his sisters would help
out. All had left, but not before tidying up and putting up curtains. Ernest,
used to some help, apparently was careless
and while he was away the wind likely
blew the curtains into the flame of his gas refrigerator and started the fire.
I didn't know about the house until 1 came into
his pasture about 11:30 A.M., just down from Chicago. I found Ernest and another
cowboy sleeping in the garage on makeshift beds. It was 100 degrees plus and they were sleeping it off. Ernest rolled over when I punched him and exposed a completely,
momentarily horrifying, red side, undershirt, pants, skin and all. The dye on the coverlet was not sweat proof!
He looked downright awful and his half-opened
eyes pretty well matched his red half. As usual, no
greeting, just as if I had been there all along.
"Where's your house?" I asked.
"Burned down," he muttered. "Took my goddamned new suit. Doc," he continued, "you goin' to
town?" I had just come from town, but said I could. "Go to the drug store," he managed. "See the owner, tell him
Ernest's sick, needs some medicine." He sat up, scrawled out a "check" on a piece of brown paper,
putting on the name of the bank and
town, and scribbled the amount. Signing it, he gave it to me to pay for the medicine. I drove back to town fully expecting to pay for the medicine out of my own
pocket. The county was dry by then, so
I was curious about what I might get.
It turned out to be a pint of under-the-counter gin and the druggist happily took the check, which I gave him
hesitantly. About three o'clock I got
back to Ernest's place. His friend had
somehow gotten away Ernest uncapped the gin and took about half of it in one swig. He downed the pint
in a few gulps, while I cringed. A little water and he was up and about,
feeling better. All I could think
was that these cowboys are rough and tough.
Living alone and riding his pasture, Ernest, of
course, knew his range well. He was curious about everything on the range and
had developed a crude sense of biology that stood him in good stead. Cattle, coyotes, rabbits and all such mammals he understood.
"Like people," he told me once,
"when they fuck, they get young'uns."
Snakes, lizards or scorpions didn't intrigue
him much, except that some stung or bit. The
striped grass lizard, Cnemidophorous, was a scorpion, and the scorpion a stingin' lizard.
Rattlesnakes were just for killing. Birds came closer, especially chickens. He kept a few hens for eggs. Their sex habits were
worthy of interest.
I got this story from Professor Romer, who
dropped in on Ernest many times and knew him well.
"Professor," Ernest asked, "do
you know about animals and birds?"
Romer, a professor of biology and anatomy at
Harvard, allowed as how he did.
"Well," Ernest went on, "I've been
watching my goddamned chickens for a long time
now. Did you know a hen don't have to be
fucked to lay an egg?" A sound observation, Romer granted. Another time, I was at the cabin when Ernest came
in with a squawking, jumping bag, containing two roosters.
"Doc," he called over, "you see
them hens there? I got two het up roosters in
this tote-sack. They ain't never seed a hen and them hens
ain't never seed a rooster. Let's see what happens."
So he dumped out the roosters, whose feet began
going before they hit the ground. No niceties, no
courtship gestures, just plain rape. Before they
knew what was going on the unsuspecting hens were
tagged and lit out, with their own indignant squawks, for the mesquite with the
roosters in hot pursuit. By dusk three hens and two roosters were in
the chicken roost, seemingly happy with
affairs, with the roosters on the top rung and the hens on the bottom. Two hens never came back; probably the coyotes got them.
Like most persons who live on the land, Ernest
was a conservationist, taking what he
needed, but not destroying the land's capacity to
provide for all. But when rules seemed unreasonable,
they were to be circumvented. The Waggoner Ranch is a game preserve. Rabbits were fair game, but the big "blue" quail and wild turkeys were
rigorously protected. We once even received a caution for shooting bullfrogs
for food. The ranch had its own game
warden. Occasionally Ernest wanted quail and it seemed right to him that he
should trap them for his own use. Rabbits
were beneath his dignity. Turkeys, too, were a
delicacy, especially if forbidden.
One morning, while we were still there, Ernest
left on his dappled mare with his shotgun, rather than his old rifle which he usually carried strapped onto his saddle. He told me that he had three shells and that he was going to get a turkey
from the wild flock to the north of his
cabin. I had seen him hit a rabbit from a moving car with his rifle,
but also seen him miss a knothole target in
the yard from 50 feet while standing still. After that he adjusted his sight
with a hammer! According to his philosophy there was nothing wrong with
us having a turkey or two, but I was a bit
more dubious, or apprehensive, after the
About four o'clock, when the hot, drying day had
brought us in early, Ernest came back with one shotgun shell left and three
turkeys, ranging from about six to ten pounds. In a few minutes they were
cleaned and in the monstrous refrigerator. Feathers,
of course, were all over the yard and would fly up in our faces when the sandy, gusty wind blew.
In about an hour, sure enough, the game warden
rode up. He patrolled the whole ranch,
the whole half million acres, and my education
in Texas ways was never up to knowing just how he spotted illegal activities. Helicopters were still a few years away. Whenever we would be out of our usual haunts he would seem to show up, just checking on who we were. It was
more than coincidence, I am sure, that he rode up just when he did, neither
too soon nor too late.
"Ernest," he started out, "I got
some reports of shooting up north of here.
You know anything?" "Can't say I do," from Ernest.
The game warden, "You know that flock of
turkeys up the way?"
"Up thar som'eres."
"Well, someone's been shooting at them.
That's a jail offense."
"Should be," said Ernest.
All during this conversation, of course, gusts
of wind were blowing turkey feathers all
about, right in our faces.
"What's that, over there?" asked the
warden pointing to a wooden apple box tilted up on a stick with a string
attached to it.
"Rabbit trap," replied Ernest. "Quail trap."
"Come on over," asked Ernest, moving
toward the trap. "See that fur?"
He pulled out some gray rabbit fur from among
grains of corn. "See, the poor rabbit
caught hisself on that nail in the box before I got him
out. Can't get no quail near a box like that."
"Well, you know trapping quail means a
fine and jail too," the warden told him.
"Yeah, I know, and a good thing too. Don't
want no poachers on this ranch," came back Ernest,
closing off the conversation.
Figure 8. Camp at
Sharvar Tank on the Waggoner Ranch, 1951. Left to right: Neil Tappen, a student
of anthropology. Neil continued on to become a distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of
Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Robert Bader, who after a career in zoology at
the University of Florida, Gainesville,
became Dean of the College of Liberal Arts in the University of Missouri, St. Louis, Missouri.
Robert Sloan, who deserted his early love of invertebrates for a career as a
vertebrate paleontologist and became a professor in the Department of
Geology and Geophysics in the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis.
Finally — it seemed like an hour to me — the
warden got on his horse and rode to the gate.
While Ernest was opening it, the warden said,
"Ernest, if you hear any shooting, let me know."
"Shore will, got to keep them turkeys safe
from them hunters."
The warden rode off.
Gradually, during 1946 and 1947, our work took
us farther and farther west. We were trying
to find fossils in beds younger than any that had
yielded them earlier and this meant gradually moving away from Ernest's cabin. First we went to Sharvar Tank (Figure 8), some 18 miles west from the main ranch headquarters, called Sachuista, which lies on the
We camped there for parts of two or three
seasons using the water from the tank for everything. Bryan Patterson, then of Chicago, later Harvard, visited us and brought along
the owner of the property he was working on
This old gentleman, wise in the ways of the
area, refused to drink from the tank. He noted an over-ripe steer carcass a couple
of hundred yards away and the buzzards that ate on it sometimes flew over the tank losing their cargo. The tank was big, and
cattle drank from it and took care of their other needs in it, but none of this bothered us outlanders. We
drank the stuff and felt fine. Not
the old gentleman. He drank wine which he
had brought. Wise as he was, and I am sure he was really right, Bryan and his group had to leave after two
days because the old man had a serious
case of the "runners."
The last time we camped at Sharvar Tank, Ralph
Johnson and I set up camp and then noted how low the water was. This was during one of the periodic droughts in the region. The drinking did not look too good so we made coffee with the water. Coffee never did much to change the color of the red water, and we would use only red water because clear water meant a high content of gypsum, second cousin to epsom
salts. This time, as usual, the color did not change,
but the taste was terrible. We found out how bad
boiled green algae could be. Not only was that
batch bad, but the coffee pot was ruined, for no end of boiling
and scouring could get rid of that foul taste. We changed plans and began to go six miles out to a line camp and haul our water. We could still squat down to
bathe, but the value of the procedure was dubious.
Talking over "going west" on the
ranch with Ernest turned us to what some people
called Ignorant Ridge (Figure 9). I don't know why this name came to be, and did not find anyone who did. Some didn't even believe that the ridge was called Ignorant Ridge, It lay at the western edge of the Waggoner
property in Knox County, some seven sand-and-red-mud miles north
of Vera and about five miles of sticky
black mud and sand from Gilliland. There were about 20 feet of Pleistocene
gravel, sand and black soil on top
of the Permian beds there and this made for good farming on the gumbo and an abundance of well water. Ernest had told me to go over there and, at
the top of the hill, to look up Ab Covington, who was keeping the west pasture for Waggoner.
Top: Camp on Ignorant Ridge. Students slave and bosses supervise or sleep. Bob
Miller was good at dishes but better at the mathematics of evolution. At this time a graduate student,
he went through all the stages up
the ladder at the University of Chicago, becoming a Professor in Geophysical Sciences. Having struggled to teach
me math, Bob left fossils and evolution to become an expert in near
shore wave processes and sediments. Bottom:
Camp at Ignorant Ridge, our home for several years. Left to right: Russ Guthrie, outdoorsman, who with his Ph. D. from Chicago went from
the Permian to become an outstanding student of Pleistocene mammals, their taphonomy and biogeography from
his base at the University of
Alaska. The "boss" in the seat of honor and leisure. Ted Cavender, fossil and recent fish expert who, after his
Ph.D., continued his research at the University of Michigan and Ohio
State University. One of the best men with
a shovel and pick on our crews.
"You go see old Ab and tell him Ernest
sent you. You say to him, 'How are you, you old son of a bitch.' He'll know I
So I did, and Ab did. I was ready to duck, for
Ernest had often told me how this gentle
greeting to strangers had got him in trouble.
But Ab understood and somewhat later we set up camp
on Ignorant Ridge about 200 yards from the house and with a rich supply of water. The water was a problem for a little while until our systems adjusted to its moderate gypsum content, but
thereafter nothing tasted quite so good. The site was beautiful, overlooking the broad valley of the South Fork of the Wichita
River, a richly green valley where the luxurious grass and mesquite fought a never ending battle against each other. The mesquite always won unless controlled by the
ranchers. Cedars — really junipers —
topped the hills and on even the hottest nights a breeze welled up from the
valley. With this move, I didn't see
Ernest for long stays and sort of lost touch with him. One year, soon
after, I found that Ernest had been moved to
the Flippen Creek gate of the ranch, where Byrdie Fergusen, who kept the gate, took care of his failing
health. By summer he had moved to a
house in Seymour. The Waggoner estate, like
many large ranches, was a highly paternalistic organization, taking care of its people, so Ernest was in
no want. Ab Covington also had been moved to Seymour, so he and Ernest had each other for company.
During that summer I went to Seymour to look up
Ernest. He and Ab were at his place and we sat and swapped yarns for a time. Ab's old dog, Dan, one of several from the
ranch, ambled up and flopped on the porch with
a gasp of solid comfort. As usual in the late afternoon that time of
year, clouds had been building up. They
announced their presence with a ripping blast of thunder. Old Dan,
contented no more, slunk into the house,
moving faster than I thought he could.
"Old Dan sure git when it thundered," Ernest allowed. "Didn't used to," from Ab, "but an
old mare I had attracted lightnin'.
Everytime I rode her and a cloud come up, sure enough bolts would start hitting around us. Old Dan finally got so he wouldn't go out with that mare and me.
Finally it got so he just wouldn't go
out at all."
"Had a mare like that," mused Ernest.
"Just seemed to draw a cloud. Had to
git rid of her. Wonder if she ever got hit?"
"That was a while ago," Ernest went on.
"Seems a long time back."
"Yup," said Ab, trying to get back in
the swing of the talk. "Hmm," said
Ernest, and went on. "Brings to mind one evening with a
storm comin' on. We was a bunch of young
bucks settin' on Mrs. Bates' porch, where we was boarding." Ernest
began, keeping Ab out of the yarning. "We was drinkin' beer and every so
often one or another would get up and piss
off the porch. Out come Mrs, Bates and says
'You fellers quit pissin' off the porch.' So," went on Ernest, "we went into the yard and pissed on the
porch." His big, snaggle-tooth
guffaw .... "Pissed on the porch." Another guffaw.
"Pissed on the porch. Ha, ha, ha,
ha . . ., ha . . . ."
Next spring, I heard from Byrdie that Ernest had
been very sick. He was back in Seymour, but
still wasn't doing too well. His whole system was just running down,
complicated by his asthma or, more likely,
emphysema. The story I got is as follows. In the Vernon
hospital the doctors had pretty well given up
on keeping him going and since he had a short time asked what he would
like. Nothing he could ask for could do him much harm. Ernest rather weakly
suggested he would like a good drink of
whiskey. Just where to get it was a problem, for the area was dry.
At that time Robert Anderson, later a prominent
member of the Eisenhower Administration, was Executive
Manager of the Waggoner Ranch, which had its headquarters in
Vernon. He was greatly liked and respected
by the people of the ranch and of Vernon as well, and had aided in reducing the
conflicts of the ranch and town that had long existed. So the hospital asked him if he could procure a bottle of
whiskey, which he did. Ernest began
to feel a little better and with a second bottle was well enough to leave the hospital for Seymour
I rather imagine, knowing Ernest well, that the
feeling that everything was over for him was
as much to blame for his critical condition as his
obviously bad health. He no longer had his horses, his morning Bull Durham and his coffee. He couldn't cuss and
blaspheme as liberally as he used to, and the old red hill north of his old
cabin, where he wanted to be buried, was far away. There was just nothing to do and his way of life had not
developed any resources away from the land.
As soon as I could I went to Seymour, along with
Nick Hotton, one of my graduate students, to see
Ernest. He was in bed when we got there, about 3:30 in the afternoon. I
suspect that he spent most of his time
lying down. He never read much and, of course, there was no television.
He started to get up, brightening, when we
came in, but we just propped him up on a
"How ya doin?" I asked. "Not too good, Doc. Not too good." "Ernest," I said, "Byrdie's told me you have given up
swearing and cussing. Is that right?"
"Smoking too," he replied.
"Seems to get my lungs." Then with the old twinkle in his eyes. "I never did go much for this God stuff, but I'm goin' pretty soon. Don't mind,
grant you, but figured I'd take no chances with
cussin' so I quit." "Must kinda hamper you, doesn't it," I
quipped. "Ain't no one to talk to, nothing to say, no
breath to say it anyhow, so don't make no nevamind."
We chatted together for about an hour about old
friends, Byrdie, his mother and sisters
and my old field partners, Ernie, Bill, Roy,
Mike and the lot. Where were they now and how had they done? Never figured Mike would get out of the bush, he was so short and meek, should have had a flag attached, and so on ....
I never saw Ernest again, for soon he passed on. He had always wanted to
be buried in the red hill near the house on Coffee
Creek by the Old Seymour Road. But, of course, it was not to be. Yet, when I go past the hill, as I do
once in a while now, I feel some
part of him has rubbed off on it, for it seems to have some of the gentleness
and hell raising cussedness of this man resting in its bare red
sandstone and clay.