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

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The Worst Hard Time

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

by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Sep 2006, 352 pages

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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.  

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