Daddy asked me to write this book. “You’ve got to do it,” he said. I was eight or nine at the time. “The story will be lost unless you write it down. People will forget. No one will have heard of John Ward, and they might change the name of the mountain.” He meant Ward Mountain, of course, the mountain where John roped the bear.
“Well, I’m not a writer,” I said.
“You’ve got to,” he replied, “there’s no one but you to set the story down.”
I never knew why he couldn’t write it himself. But he made clear the task was up to me. Daddy was like that sometimes. Sure, I pushed back. “I’m just a kid,” I said.
“Yes, but you’ll grow up! “Of course, I’m not telling you what to do…”
But, of course, you know he was! And not for one moment, did he let up.
He made sure I knew the family lore. How John and Tin ran off, lured by some pipe dream of Los Angeles. How they barely had money for food, but helped some cowboys cross a river with their herd and ended up down in Big Bend. How they landed a job working for Jim Gillett.
All my growing up years, I spent summers on our ranch, where three generations of Ward men, including our hero, John, had raised cattle and prize-winning angora goats. At daybreak, Daddy and I would saddle our horses and ride up into the hills, flushing out deer and dove. We searched for arrowheads, and checked the windmills, to see that they were pumping, and made sure the water gaps were up so the cattle wouldn’t escape. These long rides meant time for us to talk. Daddy would tell about John, and what he knew about my great-grandmother, Ginny. Then we’d go back to the house and eat frijoles and onions and salt pork that had sat in the oven all those hours. We’d cut biscuits with a water glass, and bake them up, flaky and hot. At night, we’d watch the stars. Next day, we’d get up and do it all again. How I loved that time! The enchanted summers, I called them, South Texas Heaven. Those summers gave rise to stories of their own. Perhaps someday, I’ll have to tell them, too.
When Daddy got married, everything changed. We no longer rode. He was older, he said, and besides that, I was busy. Well, indeed, I was! I went to law school, got married, had babies and went through a hard divorce. I was lawyering for an ad agency, and raising two young sons. Through it all, Daddy never stopped asking about the book. He wasn’t giving up! But life got in the way. I had a mortgage, and kids in school, and I was on my own. I tried to reassure him. I loved him so much. But asking me to write this book was asking for a promise I might not be able to keep, one I didn’t have the guts to make.
Years went by. Daddy’s death, following a minor surgery, was heartbreaking and unexpected. By that time, I’d all but forgotten the book. These were difficult times. The estate took a couple of years to resolve, but when it finally did, I drove the 350 miles to the ranch, and knew that I was home. The house, by that time, was empty. Only odds and ends remained. Daddy’s desk was gone, and his chair, but his books were still on the shelves. Books about cattle and horses and Big Bend. On the floor lay three ancient briefcases and a heap of papers. I went through them and found old family letters about John, and research on Big Bend. Oh my God, I thought— this is for the book! Not only that, but now I knew I was going to have to write it. I knew I owed him that much. He’d been right, of course, there was no one to do it but me.
So, MY story began! I left my job (or the job left me)…I guess it was a bit of both. I enrolled in a writing program. I had to get into John’s thoughts. That part was hard. I searched for his authentic voice, as I racked my brain to remember all the pieces of his story and string them together. I hammered away, and in the end, trashed most of what I wrote. I made several trips to Big Bend, to see the land that once was The G4 Ranch. I had to talk to locals. A lot about John’s story isn’t in any book, but only in oral history, passed from old timers down to their children. In the end, I wound up backpacking G4. A good bit of John’s stomping grounds aren’t accessible by road.
The story as I’ve spun it, aligns with the family lore. Tin, the ranch, the bear, and everything. God knows why John roped that bear, but it’s certain that he did. Apparently, this sort of thing wasn’t uncommon back then. “Hell,” as one of my friends said, “a young man feeling his oats, out in that wide-open country, what else was there to do?” He had a point! John and Tin lived in a different time. They thought differently. They rode horses and carried guns and shot their own food, even though John was barely sixteen. I’ve done my best to wind back the clock, and tell it the way John himself might’ve told it…give or take a fable or two, like the parts about Kansas City, Chicago and Bill Cody, which I totally made up. Lies and windies, Daddy would’ve said. But we know for sure John was in Chicago. A Chicago photographer made his portrait, wearing a buckskin jacket, holding his six-shooter Colt. Cody’s Wild West was in Chicago just around that time. Who’s to say, but the two men could have met?
In all the best stories, the end is also a beginning. Reckless is no exception, for it kick-started the second act of my life, with which it tightly intertwines. Who could have dreamed I’d quit the practice of law to camp The G4 Ranch? That I’d find John’s legendary fiddle in a closet? Who knows where all of this may lead? Somewhere, someone wrote that the old-time cowboy dwells in our dream world, just as we dwell in his. I continue to ponder this truth.
So anyway, here’s the memoir John might’ve left, if only he’d had the time. Each day I sat down to write, I’d say, “John, help me get your story straight.” I like to think he did. It’s hard writing a story that belongs to someone else. It’s even harder when that someone mattered intensely to someone you loved who has died. You can’t consult either of them, after all. You’re truly on your own. I hope I’ve towed the line. After all, I owed it to my dad.