Excerpt from The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Worst Hard Time

The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan X
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 352 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


The ranch land was empty. No people. No bison. No roads. No farms. Just grass — three million acres of it.

"Those salubrious seasons at the end of the Eighties made that country appear a paradise," wrote one early rancher, Wesley L. Hockett. At dusk, when the sky burned pink against the expanse of sod, a cowboy could be moved to tears, it was so pretty. Much of the XIT was in the heart of the Llano Estacado, where the Comanche had roamed. And like the Comanche, the cowboys developed their own sign language to communicate over distances. The syndicate stocked the grassland with cattle, erected windmills in order to pump water up for the animals, and fenced it. Barbed wire was invented in 1874, and by the early 1880s ranchers were stringing it across the plains, closing off the free grass. In 1887, there were 150,000 head of cattle on the XIT ranch and 781 miles of fence. It was soon the biggest ranch in the world under fence.

The XIT was lord of the Panhandle. Not just the landowner, but also the law. They formed vigilante posses to chase down people who encroached on the ranch or stole cattle, and spread poison to kill wolves and other animals with a taste for XIT calves. When railroad feeder lines came to the ranch, the cattle shipping points were made into towns, which brought merchants, ministers, and other hustlers of body and soul. It was a good life for a cowboy, earning about thirty dollars a month fixing fences, riding herd, eating chow at sunset. A black cowboy, or Mexican, had more trouble. A man everybody called Nigger Jim Perry was the lone black cow puncher on the XIT.

"If it weren't for this old black face of mine," said Perry, "I'd be foreman."

The XIT prohibited gambling, drinking of alcohol, and shooting anything without permission. Outside the ranch borders, little rail towns sprang up with a different set of laws. One of those was Dalhart, which was born in 1901 at the intersection of two rail lines, one going north to Denver, the other east to Liberal, Kansas. In Dalhart, an XIT cowboy could get a drink, lose a month's salary in a card game, and get laid at a shack known simply as the Cathouse.

But even with the finest grass in the world, with 325 windmills sucking water up from the vast underground aquifer, with the elimination of predators, with several thousand miles of barbed wire, and with martial-law control over rustlers, the biggest ranch in Texas had trouble making a profit. The open range, on the neighboring plains states, was stocked with far too many cattle, causing prices to crash. The weather might display seven different moods in a year, and six of them were life-threatening. Droughts, blizzards, grass fires, hailstorms, flash floods, and tornadoes tormented the XIT. A few good years, with good prices, would be followed by too many horrid years and massive die-offs from drought or winter freeze-ups, making shareholders wonder what this cursed piece of the Panhandle was good for anyway. Bison have poor eyesight and tend to be clannish, but they are the greatest thermo-regulators ever adapted to the plains, able to withstand temperatures of 110 degrees in summer, and 30 below zero in winter. But cattle are fragile. The winter of 1885–1886 nearly wiped out cattle herds in the southern plains, and a second season of fatal cold the next year did the same thing up north. Cowboys said they could walk the drift line, where snow piled up along fences north of the Canadian River, for four hundred miles, into New Mexico, and never step off a dead animal.

With the British investors pressing for a better return on their piece of unloved and nearly uninhabited Texas, the syndicate turned to real estate. The problem was how to sell land that only an herbivore with hooves could love. Parts of the XIT were scenic: little pastures near a spring, red rock and small canyons to break the ironing board of the High Plains. There was some timber in the draws, but not enough for fuel or building material. What fell from the sky was insufficient to grow traditional crops. And the rate of evaporation made what rain that did fall seem like much less. It takes twenty-two inches in the Panhandle to deposit the same moisture as fifteen inches would leave in the Upper Mississippi Valley. The native plants that take hold, like mesquite, send roots down as far as 150 feet.

Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.  

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Only Child
    Only Child
    by Rhiannon Navin
    Rhiannon Navin's debut novel, Only Child received an overall score of 4.8 out of 5 from BookBrowse ...
  • Book Jacket: Brass
    Brass
    by Xhenet Aliu
    In 1996, Waterbury, Connecticut is a town of abandoned brass mills. Eighteen-year-old Elsie ...
  • Book Jacket: Timekeepers
    Timekeepers
    by Simon Garfield
    If you can spare three minutes and 57 seconds, you can hear the driving, horse-gallop beat of Sade&#...
  • Book Jacket: How to Stop Time
    How to Stop Time
    by Matt Haig
    Tom Hazard, the protagonist of How to Stop Time, is afflicted with a condition of semi-immortality ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

A nuanced portrait of war, and of three women haunted by the past and the secrets they hold.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Only Child
    by Rhiannon Navin

    A dazzling, tenderhearted debut about healing, family, and the exquisite wisdom of children.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The French Girl
    by Lexie Elliott

    An exhilarating debut psychological suspense novel for fans of Fiona Barton and Ruth Ware.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Beartown

Now in Paperback!

From the author of a A Man Called Ove, a dazzling, profound novel about a small town with a big dream.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

T I M A Slip B C A L

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.