An important setting of my novel Pilot Point is the North Texas Livestock Commission, based very much on the Pilot Point Livestock Auction between the town of Pilot Point and Lake Ray Roberts. Even several of the individual characters of the cattle auction are based on the workers there around 1990.
While I was writing the first draft of Pilot Point, I was known as the guy on the catwalks taking notes on the Saturday auctions. I wanted my novel to be as true to life as possible, and, yes, I was meticulous about it. I bought and sold cattle there as well. Not to mention I ate many an excellent hamburger at the café by the arena.
I was hoping to do a book signing soon in the lobby of the “sale barn” as we called it. But I just found out it closed years ago. After I moved from Northeast Denton County, sales at the auction slowed. And the business closed by 2007. The passage of time and its hardships do take their toll.
The following excerpt from an auction introduces Storm James – and we see his introduction to the ornery old cowboy, Bowie Smith.
Up in the dust behind the arena, above the commotion and sweat, sat a sullenly quiet boy. He was manning the weighing-stall prod, an electric prod at the end of a long pole.
The buyer’s stall was called—“Fifty-three. Five-three”—and as the gate below was opened, he prodded the cow ten feet below him to get her going out of the weigh room. He wore tight jeans with holes all over them, boots, and no shirt. That summer, he almost always went around shirtless.
He claimed to be fifteen. Being five-three and barely a hundred pounds at best, he looked more like thirteen. With his smooth face, he might have looked even younger had he not the glowering look of a young teenager angry with the world. His thick black eyebrows beneath wavy brown hair accentuated his frown.
He looked out at the dusty haze that hung inside the barn. He had the kind of eyes that changed color with the light and his mood. They were a dark chestnut now. He waved his hand to shoo away a fly and the dust, to no relief. And he prodded another cow out of the weigh room to be hustled off to her buyer’s stall.
He heard someone coming up the ladder and looked over. Another young hand came up. Considered one of the easier and safer jobs, the weigh-stall prod was usually entrusted to younger or less experienced hands. The kid climbed up off the ladder, spat to the side, and said, “The old man wants you to help him over at the cow pens.” He motioned over to the west side of the barn.
“Good!” the boy crabbed smartly. He moved another cow, stood up, handed the prod over, and climbed down the ladder of two-by-fours. He made his way over to the cow pens and “the old man.”
“Hey old man,” he greeted cheerfully when he got to him, glad to change jobs and get outside, where the dust and flies seemed more tolerable. He meant no disrespect by his greeting. He just did not know, nor care, much about being respectful. The man turned around. “I hear you want me to help you out.”
“Yeah,” the man said lowly, peering beneath his Resistol at this cocky kid. “What’s your name?”
“Storm James,” he replied proudly, hanging his thumbs on the front belt loops of his jeans.
The man paused, looked him over a second then nodded slowly. Then he stated flatly, but without any irritation, “Mine’s Bowie Smith. It’s not ‘Old Man.’”
“Oh. Sorry,” Storm smiled, squinting.
Having gotten the niceties out of the way, Bowie strode over to the corner of the unweaned calf pen beside the cow chutes and ordered, “Be ready with the calves—some pairs are comin’ through.” He then strode back up the alley and Storm followed.
“I sure am glad you got me out of that barn. That dust is awful in there. It feels like you’re breathing dirt. Though it’s kinda dusty out here, too.”
“Open the gate, all the way.” And Storm opened a pen gate so that it blocked the alley leading away from the arena.
Bowie worked his way into the cows to move them. The cattle moving around the pen and then trotting out into the alley stirred up some dust. Storm squinted and said, “I take that back. It’s plenty dusty out here.”
When all the cows were out, he followed Bowie in running them toward the arena and helped block the alley as Bowie and Jim worked them into the cow stall. Once the cows were in and the gate closed behind them, Storm spat for effect then continued, “Yeah, that air gets pretty bad in there. You’d think they’d put a fan in there or something.”
Now Bowie never was one to be especially patient with kids, especially complaining yakking kids. So he broke into a singsong as he walked past Storm, back down the alley.
“From dust you come, and to dust you go. So get used to it, kid.” His conclusion came with a slight edge to his voice.
Storm looked cockeyed at the man, not knowing what to make of his peroration. But he figured he’d best stop talking about dust.
Bowie stopped at a pen with a few young calves in it and opened the gate. Then he just stood in the alley. Storm tried to figure what the man was doing or about to do. Bowie turned his blue eyes and looked at the boy looking at him. Then he said, more amused than impatient, “Well, don’t just stand there; move these calves out.”
Smiling at himself and the old man and at the chance to run some cattle around, even if they were little calves, Storm ran into the pen and ran the calves around and out into the alley. He kept running them down the alley and into the calf pen to be paired up with their cows for sale.
Bowie followed behind. “There’s a lot of pairs comin’ through, so help out Kelly with the calves in there.”
Pilot Point is available on Amazon (for as little as $2.99!) and can be ordered elsewhere as well.
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