Spending some time with a real Texas Cowboy

Mar. 29, 2014 @ 05:52 PM

The building is simple with a hodgepodge of furniture I can tell was pieced together to furnish it. Evidence of the outdoor life are everywhere. Hats from gun and rod companies and rodeos rest on shelves and hang from hangers. There are books about everything on the shelves but most have an outdoor theme. The walls of the bunkhouse are graced with photos that tell the story of fishing vacations all over the hemisphere, from tropical locations, shallow saltwater fishing for bonefish and tarpon and offshore adventures for marlin, dolphin, and wahoo. Some of the pictures are framed but many are just thumbtacked to a bulletin board. There are father and son photos, with salmon and trout from the clear waters of the northwest, and bass, catfish, and panfish from the South. The hunting photos reflect everything from squirrel hunts to trophy deer and elk, and more than a few with monstrous rattlesnakes. Smiling faces, friends and family, old and young, wonderful times gone by, in the outdoors.

Something that happens to me all the time is the envy conversation. It happens when I meet someone who reads my columns or magazine articles, and tells me I’ve got a great job. They wish they had a fun job like mine, getting to shoot, hunt, and fish, and getting paid for it. I generally tell them they probably wouldn’t trade checks with me and I remind them that I drive old vehicles with lots of miles, stay in cheap hotels (when I actually stay in a hotel and not sleep in my truck, van, or camper) and that I couldn’t live the life I live if I had any monthly payments.
Contrary to what one might believe, it’s a pretty hectic life at times, and sometimes I get pretty tired. Last week, on Saturday, my day began at 6:00 am, and at 10:00 pm, I was skinning a hog and using the van lights to see what I was doing. True, I had a great day, but I was totally exhausted by the time I fell into my bunk.
While I enjoy almost all the things I do as a writer, my favorite part is the people I meet. Outdoor people are almost universally nice folks, and my host last week was hardly an exception. I met James Keeton by complete coincidence, based on my habit of getting into conversations with anyone who will talk to me. Cherie and I were coming home from SHOT Show, the largest hunting and shooting trade show in the world. As is our custom, we drove to the show and the show is in Las Vegas. Driving across the country is one of my favorite things to do, not just because we hunt, fish, and shoot our way across, but because of the wonderful people we meet.
On this occasion, we were at Chui’s Mexican Restaurant in Van Horn Texas. We were eating breakfast and there was only one other couple in the restaurant. I got into a conversation and mentioned shooting a pig. My new friend asked if I wanted to shoot a pig in Texas, and of course, I said I would. As so often happens in Texas, he went to some trouble for a stranger, and called his friend who had a pig problem on his ranch. Four hours further east, we were at James Keeton’s Rust Ranch near a tiny place called Cleo, Texas. We arrived at four, were in a pig blind by five, and Cherie and I each had shot a pig by six. James and I stayed up until midnight talking about guns, hunting, and fishing, and by the time we left, I had a new friend in Cleo, Texas.
James’ life as a rancher in Texas is so interesting; I couldn’t resist sharing his story. James is one of the last of the living cowboys. His grandfather owned two 20,000 acre ranches in Texas. James inherited a portion of the ranches and now owns 10,000 acres called the Rust Ranch. The ranch is about ten miles off the paved road. To reach the ranch, you drive for miles on dusty, unpaved roads lined with live oaks, pinions, and mesquite.
James’ life growing up involved hard work on the farm, but there were some wonderful distractions. He learned to shoot because there was little to do otherwise on the ranch. His dad was an avid fly angler and James learned to cast a fly rod and won multiple fly casting championships. He hunted both on the ranch and off the ranch, and he competed in rodeos. The work was hard, but the rewards were many. Life on a ranch is a world apart from our lives here in North Carolina. It’s about 30 minutes to the nearest town, farther to a Walmart. From the interstate to the Rust Ranch, we forded the creek four times on the state road. There are no bridges. The fords involve running through four inches of water, but after a storm, there can be six feet of water across the road. When the water is high, you stay at home. Once on the ranch, and coming down the driveway, there are several more crossings across dry washes that become torrents after a thunderstorm, and James sometimes has to use his bulldozer to repair the road before he can leave the ranch. 
James leases 5,000 acres for hunting and keeps the rest for himself. Originally, the ranch was used for cattle. Then they switched over to mohair goats. At one time, the ranch had 5,000 goats. During the shearing season, James was up at 3:00 am feeding horses. He ate breakfast and was on a horse by sunup and stayed in the saddle until dark, running and roping goats. Shearing season lasted about a month. Imagine running and roping goats from sunup to sundown for 30 consecutive days.
In the 90s the Clinton administration changed laws that pulled the rug out of the mohair business, and James went through some serious health problems that resulted in an eventual liver transplant. In order to have some income, he began leasing half the acreage and now only keeps three horses instead of the 30 it took to keep the ranch running when they were running goats. Now, he rides the hills and draws to maintain the feeders and blinds in a diesel pickup or a Polaris Ranger. It’s a wonderful life, but a hard life. It’s an outdoor life the way people once lived their lives. James still loves hunting, fishing, and shooting, though his health issues now keep him closer to home. He’s generous, fun to be around, and one of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.
After our hunts, James and I sat on the porch of the bunkhouse and talked about guns for hours. As a boy, I idolized cowboys and the lives they led, and now a real cowboy is my friend. It’s true, I have a great job and I’m truly blessed, but the best part is the friends I make. I don’t know whether spending time outdoors makes us friendlier or maybe the outdoors just attracts that kind of people, but the biggest blessing in what I do is the people I get to know, and James Keeton is one of the nicest and a true outdoorsman and real American.
Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. He writes about hunting, fishing, dogs, and shooting for national magazines and websites. He recently finished his first book, Off the Porch. If you’d like to have him speak to your group, or would like a copy of his book, he can be reached at offtheporch52@yahoo.com or offtheporchmedia.com