Story by Sheila Bright.
I have been trying to tell the story of Kenton, the westernmost town in Oklahoma, since last November, when I passed through on a whim and left carrying ghosts.
Another me, an earlier me, would have wrapped the story up with loose ends dragging and the bottom exposed. But Kenton won’t let me go.
Until the accident, there were four children here. Now, there are three. Ranchers remain bitter about a man branded as a land rustler who reportedly busted up some ranches then high-tailed it out of Cimarron County with the IRS mounting a posse. People hesitate to talk for too long about the bad times, the prolonged drought, and some of the saddest days a community has ever known.
Without hope, they say, you got nothing but dirt.
Back in the 1930s, dust and wind rubbed Oklahoma raw. The pox came back last year with a record-book blemish you can’t hide: the driest year since 1910. Oklahoma’s Panhandle lays blistered for miles with a bad case of shingles. Forsaken ranches, ditched schools, crusty storefronts, and drought-cracked fields make it hard to keep your eyes on the road.
“People blaze right past us every day,” said Asa Jones as he sat outside the Kenton Museum. “You just wished more people would stop.”
Folks like Asa and his wife, Fanny, are why I stopped, and why I kept going back, logging more than 3,000 miles to fuel a borderline stalker infatuation with a town I never even knew existed until seven months ago.
“Kenton is the tail end of the dog,” George Collins told me the first night I drove down into the canyon to my tiny cabin at his Hoot Owl Ranch Bed & Breakfast. “Glad you found us.”
Only 20 people live in Kenton. Another 20 or so live on the ranches nearby. Nearly all of them have already bought tombstones.
In a converted trailer house with a lean-to covered ramp, the faded Kenton Post Office stands sentry as the only retail business still operating in a downtown that once bustled with hundreds of people. Inside the postal trailer, 200-plus patina-rich brass boxes line the walls. Twenty-seven of them are locked and unlocked six days a week as dependable cocoons for birthday cards, sympathy notes, bank statements, and catalogues from stores few residents will likely ever visit. Here on the prairie, 73946 is more than a zip code. It’s an anchor in a dry-locked town with no school, no store, and no gas station.
Mail comes in from Clayton, N.M., and Liberal, Kan., because Kenton is the end of the line for both routes. Two mail carriers head out on either a 130- mile round trip to Folsom, N.M., or an 82-mile round trip east through rural Cimarron County then up into Colo. and back. Some 500 to 600 certified letters and about 30 boxes hit the road every week. Inside are precious contents—medications, tractor parts, and one-page sentiments to folks who once called the Panhandle home. But it, too, may dry up: The Kenton Post Office is on the United States Postal Service’s chopping block.
“The people who live here are either working ranchers or retired ranchers,” said Terry Collins, the postal officer in charge. “They get their medicine through here. They get their supplies through here. If they close us, people will have to drive more than 37 miles away to mail a package. They’re telling us to expect deliveries to be delayed one or two days because mail will have to be rerouted through Wichita. They call it snail mail now. I don’t know what they’re going to call it if this happens.”
Bonnie Heppard, 84, ran the post office from 1979 to 2009. We visited over steak dinners cooked by Terry, who along with her husband, George, operate a steakhouse at their Hoot Owl Ranch on Friday and Saturday nights. Everyone around here does more than one job to pay the bills.
Bonnie came to dinner wearing a prairie dress and shawl that she’d made several years ago for the Boise City Pioneer Day parade. I thought she dressed up for the interview, but she didn’t know we were sharing a table until she walked through the door. She had simply decided to drive over for a flat-iron steak and determined it was a nice night for a pioneer dress. My two-day dirty jeans bore a rip in the pocket and holes in both knees.
“So, you were the postmaster for 30 years? Or do you call it the postmistress?” I asked.
She smiled and buttered a homemade roll.
“A postmistress is the woman who sleeps with the postmaster,” she said.
Bonnie is worried about what will happen if the post office closes. She explains how it’s more than inconvenience for her neighbors, which means someone who lives within a 50-mile radius. About the sixth time that someone gave me directions with the words “drive down the road a ways,” I realized distance is irrelevant in Kenton.
Bonnie knows most every road in Cimarron County. When she wasn’t mastering the post office, she drove a school bus along with her husband.
“It would really create a hardship on this aging community to have to drive to Boise City or to Clayton to get to a post office,” she said. “Very few people in Kenton pay their bills electronically or even have a computer.”
If the post office closes, Bonnie won’t leave. Her best memories live here. So do her worst.
“I remember what the sky looked like on April 14, 1935. Black Sunday, they call it,” she said. “I was 6 years old, and a lot of people were out driving around. People did that a lot back then, drive around after church. We were visiting our neighbors. Black clouds, mostly from the north, rolled in together. It didn’t rush in. It rolled.”
Bonnie’s voice skips a bit so she takes a sip of tea, puts down her fork and repositions the napkin lying on her starched dress.
“I can remember even now how quiet it was. I thought it was so strange, the quiet. The chickens weren’t clucking. The birds weren’t singing. It’s as if everything just hushed.”
I let several silent minutes pass. Bonnie sifted through the memories of living with a dust so fine it felt like silk on the arms of a 6-year-old girl and a thick blanket of hell for a father trying to farm. She lost a few friends after Black Sunday when their families decided the Panhandle was too unbearable. Her family stayed.
“You always hear about the ones who left after the Dust Bowl,” she said. “I want people to know some people didn’t leave. It wasn’t easy, but with determination, we survived.”
Only three children are left in Kenton now. Two kids go to school over the border in Clayton. The other heads to Boise City. Either way, it’s about a 100-mile round trip to school and back every day. For the brother and sister going to Clayton, the pickup stop is just past the state line at a volunteer fire station in New Mexico. The Boise City boy has his own chauffeur—a school employee who drives a van out to get him.
It would be easier on everyone if homeschool and online classes were an option, but there are problems with that equation. Parents are too busy running the ranches to teach school and Internet service is as sketchy as the rain. The same sun sets and rises over Kenton and Boise City, but it does so an hour apart. Kenton is the only town in Oklahoma operating on Mountain Time. It’s why folks are continually having to qualify it in our conversations.
“See you around noon, my time,” they’ll say, “or 1 o’clock your time.”
No one knows for certain just where Mountain Time shifts into gear, but some folks think it’s just up the rise as you head toward Boise City. All three bed-and-breakfasts—the Hoot Owl Ranch, The Hitching Post Bed & Breakfast and Ranch—set their days on Mountain Time.
“The sun does not follow the state line,” explained Hoot Owl George. “Most of what we call our neighbors are in New Mexico or Colorado. We kinda feel like people have forgotten about us out here.”
Two days into my first trip to Kenton, I meet the town’s matriarch, 99-year-old Ina K. Labrier.
“You need to meet a good friend of mine. I’ve been in love with her for years,” said George as his wife, Terry, cooked my breakfast.
Not much surprises me by now. The night before, I drove through the Black Mesa State Park and nearly ran over a midget unicorn. When I described what looked like a shaggy pony with bones sticking out of its head, George replied, “I’ve never seen that thing before. Must be exotic. Maybe, someone dumped it out here. It happens.”
George fell in love with Ina when he was 3 and wandered away from his grandparents’ mercantile store in Kenton. He stumbled onto her porch. She fed him cookies until someone came looking for him. I grab a notebook, then decide I might need two. Before we get into the pickup, George decides we should call first to see if she is home.
“She still gets out?” I asked.
“Oh, Ina K. still drives,” he said.
I head back to my cabin to grab a third notebook and a camera.
When no one’s around to take her and she’s ready to go, Ina K. gets into her car and heads toward Kenton or to visit a neighbor. She parks her car right outside a ramp behind her house so she doesn’t have to walk far to get into it. She quit driving all the way to Boise City a few years ago, but she thinks she could still do it in case of an emergency. Once she makes it out of her driveway at the 101 Ranch, it’s about a four-mile stretch to Kenton. Her neighbors tend to give her a wide berth when they see her coming, more out of respect than necessity.
There isn’t a person in town who hasn’t eaten her food. When I first met her back in November, she stood in the kitchen with dough stuck to her hands and invited me to a dinner at the community center.
She was making whole-wheat rolls—five dozen of them.
Ina K. looked out her window at the ranch that has been her home for 73 years.
“I can’t do things like I used to do,” she said and apologized for the grease-splatters on the stove and the dust on the piano. “My old hands are turned this way and that, but I try to make do.”
On branding weekends every spring, she and her daughter, Jane Apple, cook up two or three pot roasts, 20 pounds of potatoes, and cakes, cookies, or pies. After so many years of boiling, frying, and mixing, Ina K. cooks from memory, but sometimes the memories are a tad too bittersweet, and she has to wait until the sadness goes away before she can remember whether she’s put sugar in or not.
The family operates The Hitching Post, a bed-and-breakfast with locations in town at her old house and here at the even older house at the ranch. She came to the Panhandle as a bride on the tail end of the Dust Bowl. She left a teaching job in Wiley, Colorado, to marry Ross Labrier.
“We started out with four head of cattle, and I had three checks that weren’t cashable,” Ina K. said. “I got $75 a month for teaching, but about half the time I’d have to wait a month or two before the check was good.”
For most of her married life, she saddled up a horse and rode with Ross to herd and feed the cattle. She carried Jane in a sling in front of her until the girl turned about 3, old enough by ranching standards to ride a good, steady horse. Today, some of the kids who grew up eating Ina K.’s cookies are in their 70s. They still drop by to see what’s cooking in the kitchen or call to ask if she needs anything from town. Last summer, she was still hanging her laundry outside to dry. She called her neighbors or family to let them know she was headed outside. If she didn’t call back in the time it took to hang a sheet or two, someone came looking for her.
“My walker leaned over in the hallway once, and I couldn’t get to the phone so I just slept on the floor until morning,” she said. “It wasn’t bad. I’ve slept on floors before.”
She eats good food, works hard, and takes vitamins every day. Nearing 100, she only takes three medications and seldom visits a doctor. She changed doctors a few years back because Dr. Wheeler in Boise City is slowing down his practice, she told me.
“He’s 90 years old, you know,” she said.
I’d heard about Doc Wheeler at the Rockin’ A Cafe when I stopped in for pie and conversation back in November. A tableful of old-timers were bragging about how the town doctor could still set bones broken from hard falls and stitch up hands caught in the flywheels of tractors.
Someone asked for another piece of pie and then confirmed that I was picking up the tab. When I said “Sure,” three more old men slid out of their booth and pulled up to our table.
“Oldest and best doc in the state, but his hands shake some,” said Millard Fowler. “I still go see him if I need something.”
I tried to catch up with Dr. Wheeler, but he had left for the day.
I was leaned back in a rocking chair on the porch of the Hoot Owl’s hand-hewn stone house built in the late 1800s when I heard the legend of Dr. Wheeler and bubonic plague. The story goes that Doc Wheeler once diagnosed a boy with bubonic plague and saved his life. No one else recognized the symptoms. The doctor diagnosed it as soon as he saw the swollen glands and head welts.
“The boy got it from playing with prairie dogs,” said George.
Back in my cabin, I rinsed a day’s worth of Cimarron County dust out of my throat with some wine I brought with me. It’s unbearably dry here—dry as in you can’t buy an alcoholic drink until you cross into New Mexico or head back to Guymon. The best rum in the world wouldn’t lure me back to Guymon.
Somewhere around 3 a.m., I woke up from this crazy dream of prairie dogs running, really more like skipping, through a cemetery strewn with tumbleweeds. The prairie dogs are about as far from chipmunk-cute as I am from home. I think one of them bared his teeth.
The bottle of Merlot on the table wasn’t empty, so I couldn’t blame the wine. I spent some time tossing the dream bits around in my head, wondering what a dream interpreter would make of snarling prairie dogs then scribbled down “prairie dogs,” “cemetery,” and “tumbleweed,” in a notebook.
The next day when I ventured back into my Internet-friendly patch up on Oklahoma 325, I decided to dispel this wacky medical myth of the plains. I searched for cases of bubonic plague in Oklahoma. It popped up on the Oklahoma State Department of Health website: “Plague is a rare disease in Oklahoma; the last case of human plague was reported in 1991 and was associated with exposure to prairie dogs in the Oklahoma panhandle.”
There is no denying the grim reality that more people now reside in the cemeteries of most Panhandle towns than live in them. No one understands the dying pulse of Cimarron County more than Mark Axtell who along with his wife, Cindy, operates the only funeral home in the county. When the Axtells bought the mortuary in 1987, they conducted 50 funerals a year. In 2011, the funeral count hovered around 20.
There were no funerals in February, March, or April this year, then six people died in one week. Hoping someone will die so you can pay the utility bills is more of a Grim Reaper than Axtell wants to be.
The Boise City nursing home shut down several years back so senior citizens unable to make it on their own are now living in skilled nursing centers near their children. When they die, another funeral home gets the business.
Two years ago, Axtell decided he needed to do something to boost his bottom line. He opened a cafe, the Rockin’ A. There was no running from the jokes about how he was cooking up something to keep his funeral home from going under. “What’s in the stew? Embalming fluid?” He’s heard and chuckled at them all. When a New York Times reporter came through last summer to do a story on the drought, she mentioned the cafe in her story.
It got a lot of attention, but now things have quieted down, which sits just fine with the locals who stop by two or three times a week for chicken-fried steak and biscuits-and-gravy.
“My family likes to stick together. We love Boise City. We want to stay here,” said Mark. “The cafe may help us do that.”
What he likes is the fact that the old men come in for morning coffee, shoot the breeze and then come back in the afternoon to do it again. He likes the way folks will offer to fix a problem with your truck or your tractor or your air conditioner before you even know you have a problem at all. He knows, with one phone call, he could get 20 people to lend a hand for anything he needs.
With his blue jeans, boots and cowboy hat, Axtell is not your typical funeral director. He doesn’t even own a suit. Around these parts, if someone shows up at a funeral in a suit and tie, people know they’re from out of town—way out of town. Maybe even from Kansas.
Caskets are more likely to be perched on hay bales than marble platforms. Several times a year, pallbearers climb into the back of a pickup truck to ride sidesaddle with their loved one in a silent funeral procession through small-town streets to a country cemetery. People are buried in overalls and Wranglers and housedresses with aprons.
“I conduct a lot of outdoor funerals here in ranch country,” said Axtell. “We’ve carried people to the cemetery by horse and wagon many, many times. A few years ago, I built a pine box for someone because that is what they had wanted, and I couldn’t find one in time.”
The only hearse in Cimarron County is a black suburban. Mark and his wife used to have a Cadillac, but it got stuck trying to get into one of the country cemeteries so they traded up. A few years ago, someone at a funeral directors’ meeting in Kansas asked him to move his $50,000 pickup truck out of sight because it didn’t measure up to the pack of jet black, funeral-pimped Lincoln Continentals hovering in the parking lot. It didn’t go over too well with the cowboy mortician.
“Frankly, I don’t get along with a lot of people in the funeral business. I just don’t agree with some of the practices of the trade,” he said. “Some people view the casket room as a sales room. Our doubles as a chapel. When families come in, we show them the room and let them have privacy. They’re going to buy something, but I don’t want them to risk the farm trying to bury their dead.”
It’s another reason I have fallen hard for this shriveled land. People don’t dance around how they feel. Nearly everything they say deserves quotation marks. If someone dies of a heart attack or pneumonia or cancer, the burial arrangements are handled quickly since business is so slow. A suicide up on the Black Mesa trail (leading to Oklahoma’s highest peak at 4,973 above sea level), or a missing hiker found dead from heat exhaustion exposes a serious flaw in the system. Those bodies aren’t supposed to be moved without permission from a medical examiner.
The nearest medical examiner office is 220 miles away in Woodward. The next nearest is 379 miles away in Oklahoma City. Temperatures climb well past 100 degrees in the summer.
“By law, I’m supposed to either embalm, bury, or cremate someone within 24 hours unless there’s refrigeration,” said Axtell. “The closest refrigeration is in Oklahoma City. The nearest crematory is in Dodge City, Kan. or Amarillo, Texas. I can’t cross state lines with a dead body without a permit from the medical examiner’s office.”
One night, he got a call to come to the Boise City Hospital to talk with a man whose wife had died from a heart attack as they toured the panhandle in their fifth-wheel travel trailer. The man wanted to load his wife into the trailer and drive back to Colorado to be buried. (Apparently, it has been done before.) It was a Friday evening. Axtell couldn’t reach the medical examiner. He couldn’t release the body to cross state lines either.
“The guy was so distraught and didn’t want to leave his wife so I let him hook up his travel trailer here in the parking lot of the funeral home,” said Axtell. “It took me three days to get that permit. That guy had to camp in my funeral home parking lot for three days waiting to get his wife back home to bury her. It’s a crazy, cruel system.”
Sometimes, the Cimarron County Sheriff’s Department can convince someone at the ME office to give verbal permission over the phone, he said. Most times, people just have to wait it out. When a man committed suicide in his car parked in front of the Keyes School, Axtell and a deputy had to wait with the body most of the day until the examiner could arrive. School officials tried to keep the students distracted, Axtell says, but the kids couldn’t help but notice.
Most everyone knows that the Axtell family has paid for a lot of funerals for people with little means. When you rub elbows with your neighbors on a daily basis and serve coffee to them on Saturday mornings, it’s tough to put them in the ground without a proper goodbye. He doesn’t like to talk about it too much. What he does like to talk about is the goodwill churned up every time a rancher or farmer takes his final plow.
“I can’t tell you how many times that we’ve had a farmer die in the middle of harvest and, before the day is done, there will be 10 combines working his field. Before the funeral is even set, the crops will have been taken to the granary and the payment will be on its way to the widow. It may be after the funeral before those guys will get back to working on their own fields.”
If the Axtells can make ends meet by feeding and burying people, they plan to grow old here. When a recent motorcycle rally came to town, they threw up a sign advertising, “Don’t miss out on our weekend specials.” The sign hung from a crossbeam on a trailer parked in front of the funeral home. The “weekend specials” were offered at the Rockin’ A, but the empty heart-shaped headstone sitting on the trailer made you wonder.
“I keep telling my wife,” said Axtell as he loaded surplus cafe groceries into the storage room at the mortuary, “we’re going to be covered up with funerals in a few years, and then there won’t be anyone left to bury.”
Cimarron County stretches for 1,834.74 square miles, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. There is still not a stoplight in the entire county.
The 2010 U.S. Census breaks it down like this:
- County population: 2,475
- Population, percent change from 2000: - 21.4%
- Persons 65 years and older: 22.1%
- White persons: 84.7%
- Median household income: $34,096
- Persons below poverty level: 21.8
According to Oklahoma Historical Society records, Cimarron County formed soon after statehood in 1907. Once, it was home to 20 post offices and 56 schools. Today, there are four post offices and three public school districts.
The Black Mesa plateau is hailed as a geological marvel. Some 18 tons of dinosaur bones have been quarried from the region. Bird-lovers, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts share the space with the hundreds of hunters who come here for the antelope, quail, and mule deer.
Most of the time, their presence is welcomed in No Man’s Land. There are times when a misguided bird lover takes a wrong turn and brushes up against a bristled landowner who is tired of people who think no fences mean no rules. It explains a certain sign stuck at the end of a five-mile dirt road:
- No Trespassing
- No Hunting
- No Arrowhead Hunting
- No Firewood or Post Cutting
- No Park Ranger or Ex-Park Rangers
- No Forest Rangers
- No Archaeologists
- No Universities
- No Birding
- No Biologists
- No Conservationists
- No Rabid Environmentalists.
It said nothing about no photographers so I got out, stepped over a half-eaten dead snake, snapped some quick pictures and headed back to the Kenton Museum.
Kenton unfurled its story one gritty layer at a time. Every dirt road peeled back another life rut. In a land where men are judged by the quality of their fences and family stories flap on a community clothesline stretching across three state lines, secrets don’t dry out for years.
On a blazing afternoon, I found a lone Internet signal up on Highway 325. Two minutes later, the Cimarron County Sheriff’s Office found me midway through a text. Before I could push the water bottles, notebooks, and a black banana off the seat to find my driver’s license, I heard the gravel crunch and watched the deputy whip out of there in reverse. I jumped out into the dust cloud, shouting “What the hell?” He flipped another u-turn and barreled back off to Kenton. My Internet signal left with him.
The next day, I stopped by the Boise City News office to see Editor C.F. David. I’d heard he printed the word “vagina” on the front page, and folks weren’t happy about it.
“You were in Kenton, yesterday. Heard it on the police scanner.”
“What was up with that?”
“They thought you were James Parker. That Range Rover you’re driving. People saw you taking pictures and thought you were Parker. Someone called it into the sheriff. Lucky you didn’t get shot.”
The locals say James Parker rode into town in a hummer, started buying up the land, ran up the bids at the school land lease auction, built a faux western town, then hightailed it out of Cimarron County with the Internal Revenue Service hot on his trail. The mere mention of his name causes church-going women to cuss and old cowboys threaten to do worse. It was written up in the Boise City News. The litigation saga continues.
Monty Jo and Vicki Roberts, owners of the Black Mesa Bed & Breakfast, hate to see their corner of the state racked with controversy and trouble. They don’t like what Parker’s presence brought to the Kenton area, but he did answer a financial prayer. One day, Vicki prayed for help after years of shriveling ranch profits. The next day, Parker knocked on the door.
Still, it’s hard to ignore how he has changed Kenton.
From the front porch of the Roberts’ 1910 native rock house, a sagging saloon town stakes its claim on what once was an unblemished prairie.
The 5-year-old girl in the pink cowboy hat held tight to the calf’s front legs and blinked back tears as she watched her dad cut off part of its ear, a family friend lop off its testicles, her grandfather plunge a vaccination needle into its neck, and her grandmother sear the ranch brand into its hide.
“I don’t like this,” she said.
“What’s the name of your favorite Brooks & Dunn song?” her father shouted as she swallowed a sob.
“I don’t know,” she sniffled and scurried to the side of a stone barn where she’d tucked a secret rock a few minutes before.
“It’s ‘Cowgirls Don’t Cry,’ ” her dad said and gave her a quick hug before grabbing the next calf.
Kinney Jo Apple, the rookie cowhand at Apple Ranch branding day this year, scanned the herd loitering at the far end of the corral. I knew she was counting how many smaller calves were left to brand.
She’d always played in the dirt outside the corral on branding day before, but now at age 5, she was on duty, old enough to practice with the runts.
“I think there are only two or three more left,” she said. “I hope they are girls.”
Castration isn’t easy to watch for a newbie, even a 51-year-old one. It’s a bloody slice then a sharp tug and another swift cut. The furry sacks get tossed onto the lid of a toolbox so they can be counted after branding to verify the number of steers.
The gooey parts are either thrown into a bucket, the dirt or the hot plate attached to the branding iron. Branding day calf fries are about as fresh as you can get.
Kinney Jo watched her dad grab some bull balls from the dirt and toss them onto her uncle Leon’s back as a joke. A few minutes later, her dad walked over and pulled a prank on her by tickling her neck until she flinched and looked up at me.
“Is there a ball on my neck?” she asked.
About 10 calves later, she had to go back on duty. The calf was a bit more of a bleeder. She cried even more. Her grandmother, Jane Apple, tried to cheer her up with a smile but it was hard to see through the branding iron smoke. Her brothers encouraged her.
Her dad made her stick it out until the job was done.
“We don’t give up. You can’t play until the work is done,” he told her, took off her hat and tousled her blonde hair.
Her uncle winked. Her grandfather nodded. Then they went back to roping and dragging and searing and cutting. Two hundred calves needed to be worked before noon. The two hundred calves branded yesterday had worn soreness into the cowhands’ bodies. The horses were tired too.
“Ranch life isn’t for lightweights,” one of the cowboys told me. About an hour later, I nodded toward the hot plate sizzling with fresh calf fries. The grit adds an unexpected crunch to the warm, gooey middle.
A cowboy tells me they’re better dipped in batter and fried. It’s not an option today. The testicles are Panhandle power bars full of an energy surge to hold you over until lunch. I make it through three bites and toss the rest of the dangling bit onto the ground.
“That count?” I asked the cowboy kicking shit off his boots next to me.
“Might be invited back next year now,” he said and heads to whack the testicles off another black baldy.
Someone with ties to the Labrier family name has been doing this since 1886. No one wants to be the last rancher standing, but the rawhide reality is it’s getting tougher with every dry summer.
Ross and Ina K. Labrier had one daughter, Jane. She married Bob and had three sons: LeRoss, who’d brought Kinney Jo and two of his four sons down to help from their home in Thomas; Leon, who went to college then came back to the ranch to raise his sons, Clint and Dillon; and Leston, who is mentally handicapped and lives in a trailer on the ranch.
To have a chance to make money in the cattle business here, you need 30 acres for every cow. Across more grass-rich parts of the state, it’s two to three acres per cow. Panhandle acreage is running about $500 an acre if you can find it for sale.
If you need to fence it, that will cost you about $4,000 a mile if you do it yourself, says Leon, who has a degree in agriculture business and is now running for sheriff. Feed costs about $250 per cow to get you through the winter before you can breed the cow and sell this year’s calf.
“Cattle prices have been running fairly good about a $1.19 per pound for an 1,100 pound steer and close to 1,500 for a bred cow,” he said. “To buy in and try to get started, it’s probably impossible. I think for people to buy a place and move out here and make a living, ranching would be pretty tough.”
Leon’s voice softens for a moment.
“I think for Dillon, it might be possible,” he said.
I know what he is thinking in the painful silent moments that drip by, but I still bite my lip until it bleeds. It’s taken months to understand the story gathered first from a cemetery then from hesitant neighbors and finally from a man still fresh from grief. The truth is that I tried to write the story without scraping off a family’s newest wound and asking the kind of questions that make me swallow hard first.
On my second visit to Kenton, I learned the story from people who were there that day. On the third visit—when the family felt comfortable enough to invite me to branding day—I came to understand what it really meant when Dillon’s grandfather gave him a heifer to start his herd. About 200 Black Angus calves bleated for their bawling mothers in the adjoining corral yet it was the cries of one black heifer that silenced the crowd. No one whispered a word about the symbolic nature of Dillon’s brand—a cross floating above the Apple Ranch logo, but I could feel they were thinking about a day three years before that changed the future of the ranch.
The cast was almost the same on May 14, 2009. Branding season was done so the Apple family hauled out a spread of good food to show appreciation for weeks of hot, dirty work. Out in the yard of Leon’s childhood home, neighbors, friends, and family shot the breeze about fluttering cattle prices and the need for rain, conversations rooted generations deep around these parts. It just doesn’t feel like branding season without hearing “parched” and “strapped” and “bureaucrats” thrown out.
Leon’s sons, Clint, 14, and Dillon, 9, kicked around with the cowboys, who took pleasure in teasing the boys about how much food they could shovel back or some misstep out in the corral where one wrong move could as easily become an injury as a joke. Dillon was still learning what it takes to rope, drag, hold, castrate, earmark, and brand a calf without getting hurt. Clint had already proven he was cowboy tough. Several ranchers threw out compliments about how Clint roped with a quick arm and grappled calves with graceful ease.
No one noticed much when the two Apple boys, raised by their father, went back to the house. The wind whipped up a few dust clouds. The birds competed with the cattle and the stories and the laughter to create an age-old hymn of ranch life on the Black Mesa.
Dillon’s cries broke the happiness with jagged sobs. “Clint” and “gun” were the words people remember.
The boy was conscious when they loaded him into the ambulance. A helicopter was dispatched from Amarillo. Just off Oklahoma 325, a dinosaur bone monument marks the land where giant creatures once lived and died. On that day, it guided a helicopter crew to a makeshift landing strip where people stood hoping a boy could be saved.
“They put him on life support at the hospital in Amarillo,” says Leon. “The next day, we took him off.”
By the time Leon returned home to Kenton, everyone had heard about the accidental shooting. One son dead, another heartbroken. Leon had taught his boys about gun safety since they were toddlers. The family hosts guided hunts as part of their bed-and-breakfast operation. Clint had recently passed a gun safety course so he could get a youth hunting permit. As a 6-year-old, he could shoot a fly off a cow patty with a BB gun.
“He was one of those kids that whatever he did, he did real well,” said Leon. “It’s tough. For me. For Dillon. For everyone.”
Clint was buried in the Kenton Cemetery on a small rise overlooking the town where his family has lived since the Land Rush. The Cimarron Mortuary handled the burial arrangements. Local ranchers lowered the horseshoe-handled casket into the grave with lariats. High on a ridge above them, a neighbor sat silently in his saddle with a riderless horse by his side.
When you ask folks about Clint Ross Apple, they mention the boy’s happy spirit and how the shadow of the riderless horse seemed to spread across the cemetery as people lingered around the mound of dirt long after the final prayers.
Not far from Clint’s black tombstone lies another grave with a marker honoring “Our little cowboy. Swell boy. Friend to all.” Labrier “Kade” McMillen, Clint’s cousin, died in a four-wheeler accident on the Labrier Ranch in 2003. He was 12.
Five hundred people are buried in the cemetery, but two small graves tell the story of a community’s slow ride toward ghost town fame. Without hope, you have nothing but dirt, they had said.
As I pulled out of the Kenton Cemetery and drove down its lonely streets for what could be my last time here, I wondered how long hope could last.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 17. Sept. 1, 2012.