A graceful life

Essay | Jim Bussard gladly ‘neighbored’ with others
by John R. Erickson
Posted 6/02/18, 08:13 am

On the morning of June 6, 2009, the country between our ranch and the cemetery in Lipscomb, Texas, was green from recent rains, verdant pastures flecked with spectacular sprays of a wildflower we call “Indian blanket.”

If Jim had been around that morning, he would have been smiling that big, crooked-tooth smile, and enjoying the sight of good grass, beautiful flowers, and cattle that were fat, slick-haired, and content. The news of his death had spread fast over a four-county area of the northeastern Texas Panhandle, aided by cellular phones and emails that he never used.

I had ridden many horseback miles with Jim Bussard, sometimes on the ranch he and Lance leased on Wolf Creek in Lipscomb County, and sometimes on my place in the Canadian River valley. We “neighbored,” which meant that we traded out cowboy work during spring branding and fall shipping seasons. In our country, to “neighbor” with someone is a high compliment that works both ways. It’s a statement of mutual respect.

To “neighbor” with someone is a high compliment that works both ways. It’s a statement of mutual respect.

Jim’s body had finally worn out. He had a long history of heart trouble, and in the past year he’d become a worry to his family. They’d taken his horse away from him, but he still drove his pickup around the ranch and they didn’t always know where he’d gone or when he’d be back.

It was also a matter of concern that he drove around town. Lipscomb was just a village with a population of 50 people and there was seldom much traffic on the streets, but the locals had learned to pull over to the side of the road when they saw him coming—and not to park near his pickup at the café.

And then there was the private hell he’d gone through with skin cancer. He had fair skin, spent most of his time out in the sun, and didn’t take the time, or give much thought to, protecting himself with lotions and such. The sunlight he loved was turning his cells into agents of the devil.

Over the years he made many trips to the skin specialist in Amarillo, and after every trip, his face showed the effects. Band-Aids covered some of the marks, but others were too big to hide: craters and patches of white scar tissue and snips out of his ears.

The last time I saw him, at a country dance in Lipscomb, he had lost another piece of his ear, and it appeared that the doctors had removed part of an eyelid. That such a sweet man had been forced to endure such indignity brought tears to my eyes. I put an arm around him and tried to pull him into a hug, but he stiffened like a tree. He wanted none of my pity. A moment later, he vanished into the growing darkness, a man alone with a face he didn’t want others to see.

Jim’s battle with skin cancer raised one of the oldest dilemmas in Christian theology: if God is all-good and all-powerful, why does He allow a good and decent man to be tortured by something as heartless as cancer? That question is addressed in the book of Job. God’s answer to Job was, “If you were smart enough to understand, you’d be running The Show, but you’re not.”

There wasn’t a church in Lipscomb big enough hold the crowd that would turn out to say goodbye to Jim.

The Bussard family decided to hold the funeral service at the cemetery, probably because they knew that there wasn’t a church in Lipscomb big enough hold the crowd that would turn out to say goodbye to Jim. (They were right). My wife, Kris, and I and our son Mark drove to the cemetery, 1 mile east of town. It was located on a little hill that overlooked the valley of Wolf Creek—Jim’s country.

We parked in the ditch between the cemetery and the county road, beside 40 or 50 vehicles that had arrived before us, and joined a crowd of farm and ranch people who were looking back west, toward Lipscomb. By then we could see the funeral procession making its slow way toward the cemetery: 15 mounted riders and a horse-drawn wagon bearing Jim’s casket, followed by a long line of cars and pickups.

When the procession reached the gate into the cemetery, a man from Hughes Funeral Home told them to pause for a few moments while a photographer took shots from different angles. Other photographers were taking pictures. It was the most-photographed funeral I had ever attended. I think everyone had a sense that this was something we might never see again.

I recognized most of the riders, 12 men and three women, all cowboys and ranch people. I had met and worked with them at Jim’s brandings and roundups. They wore the clothes they would have worn to a branding: hat, jeans, and Western shirt, boots, spurs, and chaps. They were all well-mounted and conducted themselves in a professional manner: no showboating for the cameras, no gaudy displays of cowboy finery, and no rookie horses that might have hurt someone in the crowd.

Bill King, Jim’s lifelong friend and ranch neighbor, led Jim’s old buckskin horse—the “riderless horse” of Western tradition, carrying Jim’s empty saddle with his boots tied backward in the stirrups.

A nice pair of gray draft horses pulled the wagon, big handsome brutes that had been well-schooled for the kind of work they were doing. Two young cowboys sat on the wagon seat. When the man from the funeral home gave them a nod, the driver flicked the reins and called, “Step up!” The horses pulled the wagon over to the gravesite, where members of the family had gathered under a tent awning.

The riders dismounted and tied their horses, and six pallbearers took their places at the rear of the wagon. The man from the funeral home waited until the last of the crowd had arrived, then told the pallbearers to unload the casket, which was draped with an American flag, honoring Jim’s service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. They carried the polished wooden casket to the platform over the grave and the crowd moved closer, surrounding the family like a pair of loving hands.

R.J. Vandygriff stepped forward, a guitar around his neck, and sang “Home on the Range.” He was a professional singer and entertainer who lived on Sand Creek, 5 miles to the west. When he wasn’t on the road doing performances, he day-worked and neighbored on ranches around Lipscomb.

The Rev. Donald Hill, a cowboy preacher from Canadian, officiated the service. While the Panhandle wind flapped the awning over the family, he read from Philippians 4:8, one of the Apostle Paul’s most-quoted passages: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things … and put [them] into practice.”

Jim Bussard had “put them into practice” for most of his 85 years, 6 months, and 14 days, and every one of the 300 people who gathered around his casket knew it for a fact. On hearing of Jim’s death, they stopped whatever they’d been doing and most had to drive at least an hour to get there. Our son Mark, who had grown up working cattle beside Jim, drove 300 miles to say farewell.

On hearing of Jim’s death, they stopped whatever they’d been doing and most had to drive at least an hour to get there.

After the service, the crowd made its way back to town, to the old Lipscomb schoolhouse. The school had closed years ago, but the town had kept it as a community center for events such as this, and the big dining room was filled to capacity. The ladies of the community had gotten together and prepared a covered-dish luncheon and laid it out on tables that stretched at least 50 feet. Another set of tables held pies, cakes, and cobblers.

While children played outside, we watched a slideshow about Jim’s life, showing him as a baby, a young cowboy, a sailor, a bridegroom beside Mona, and a proud father and grandpa—Jim with the people and animals that had been the focus of his life.

After the show, Rev. Hill asked if anyone wanted to say a few words about Jim. One by one, his friends, children, and grandchildren rose and shared a memory, most of them funny, because that’s the kind of man he was: humble, cheerful, more than a bit inclined toward mischievous humor, and armed with a never-ending supply of simple observations that, after you thought about them for a day or two, acquired the stature of wisdom.

I had my own rush of memories, and the one that stood out most vividly was a cattle drive in June of 1999. I had acquired 2,500 acres of grass east of my home ranch and needed to move 120 young cows to the new pasture. We could have hauled them in trucks but decided that it would be an adventure to drive them horseback.

That was exactly the kind of lark that Lance Bussard, Jim’s son, would enjoy, so he was the first cowboy I called. He said he wouldn’t miss it for the world. That night, he called me back. “Would it be all right if I brought Dad?”

I pointed out the obvious: Jim was 75 years old and not a great candidate for a trail drive that was likely to tax the endurance of a man half his age. Lance said, “Well, he wants to come. I guess if he wears out, we can leave him under a shade tree.”

Lance and I exchanged looks, and I whispered, “What is that old man made of?”

I had looked at a map and calculated the distance at something like 12 miles and figured it would take us maybe five hours, which would put us at the Flowers place in the early afternoon, before the heat set in. But it took us a lot longer than I expected.

It was 6 o’clock by the time we pushed the weary herd through a gate into Flowers Canyon. We’d been on horseback for 11 hours, and I was worn out. Wind and sweat had scalded my eyes, and my mouth had turned wrong-side-out from a burning thirst.

As soon as the cattle entered the pasture, they smelled water and trotted north toward some seep springs up the canyon. I yelled, “Let’s ride to the springs and get a drink!” We punched our lathered horses and tried to beat the cattle to the springs. I slid out of the saddle, dropped to the ground, stuck my face into a puddle, and began straining out the moss and bugs through my teeth. Lance was there beside me, lapping down his share of muddy water.

Jim wasn’t lapping water. He stood off to himself, chewing on a grass stem and observing the range conditions in a canyon that hadn’t been grazed in two years. He caught my eye, gave me his usual grin, and said, “John, you sure have a nice stand of wheat grass in this canyon.”

Lance and I exchanged looks, and I whispered, “What is that old man made of?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. That’s Dad.”

I didn’t have time to tell that story to the crowd at the Lipscomb school but condensed it down to a few words: “Most of us want to be strong and honest and good, but we have to work at it every day. With Jim, it seemed effortless, because that’s just what he was. What a graceful life!”

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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  • Chris Valerie ...
    Posted: Sat, 06/02/2018 09:39 am

    John's reflections are some of my favorite writings.  Keep posting them!

  • JW
    Posted: Sat, 06/02/2018 01:38 pm

    My grandsons and I have been enthralled with Hank the Cowdog stories.  To read Erickson's reflections of a simple yet purposeful lives shows the depth of his writing skills... and his character.

  • Tabitha
    Posted: Sat, 06/02/2018 08:15 pm

    Well said, Jon ~