Tales of Big Jim
Books | A Texas cowboy and wolfer who feared nothing and nobody
by John R. Erickson
Posted 9/19/20, 10:37 am
Many of our readers have told us how much they appreciate the writings of John R. Erickson, the author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series of children’s books. Over the past few months, thanks to the University of North Texas Press, WORLD has published as part of our Saturday Series chapters from his Through Time and the Valley. The book, first published in 1978, recounts Erickson’s journey in 1972 on horseback through the Texas Panhandle’s isolated Canadian River valley. Along the way, he and a friend attempt to piece together the history of the region, with its lore and abundance of colorful characters. We hope you enjoy our selections from their journey, including our installments from July and August. —Mickey McLean
John’s Creek Tales
The Brainard family had been on the river since the very beginning. The old man E.H. Brainard came to the Panhandle in 1882 to cowboy for the old Bar CC Ranch, which at that time controlled some fourteen hundred square miles of land in Roberts and Ochiltree Counties. E.H. Brainard was assigned to work out of the John’s Creek line camp at the western edge of the ranch, where he lived in a three-room frame house. When the Bar CC pulled out of the Panhandle, ruined by the blizzard of 1886 which wiped out seventy percent of its cattle, Brainard filed on three sections of land around John’s Creek and began working to put his own ranch together. Ninety years later, the ranch was being operated by his son, Bud Brainard, and grandsons Ed Brainard and Ben McIntyre.
We arrived at the Ed Brainard place around five in the afternoon. After consuming what seemed like gallons of iced tea, we followed Ed down to the corral to take care of the animals. We had originally planned to stop briefly at the house, then ride on down to Willow Creek to make our camp for the night, but Ed and his wife Lilith had dismissed this idea as preposterous, saying they had an empty trailer house nearby and we might as well use it. We accepted the offer. Down at the corral, we stowed our gear in the saddlehouse, while Ed fed the animals hay and oats and doctored Dobbin’s cinch sore with salty meat grease, an old-timey wound dressing.
When we arrived at the trailer, we found it in a state of activity, as the four Brainard girls, Berklee, Amy, Sally, and little blue-eyed Sena, rushed around dusting, picking up, making beds, and putting things in order. Berklee even left us with a vase of wildflowers.
An hour later, we took our seats around the long plank table in the Brainard dining room and helped ourselves to generous portions of ham, beef tips in gravy, mashed potatoes, green salad, fresh biscuits and homemade grape jelly. When Lilith had the audacity to apologize for the meal, we rolled our eyes and reminded her that we had been dining on jerked beef and rice for the past three days, though from the amount of food we put away, she might have suspected grub worms and cactus spines.
During the meal I sat across the table from little Sena, whose sky blue eyes and cherubic face captured my attention. I was fascinated that a child born in the age of space travel should be identified with a name as old as Sena. In two or three years she would start the first grade, taking her place among a host of Tammys and Tinas, Sherrys and Cindys, and she would be the only Sena in school.
She was named after Sena Walstad King, one of seven daughters of C.J. and Marion Walstad, who lived on the flats north of the river in Ochiltree County. Since there were no boys to help Father Walstad look after his cattle on the open range, Sena was taught to ride and rope at an early age. One summer day in 1887, while riding up Picket Canyon, she saw a half-grown bear lumbering through the brush ahead of her. Most girls and boys too would have left the scene in a hurry, but not Sena Walstad. Calmly she took the rope from her saddle, coaxed her frightened horse into range, roped the bear, dragged it home, and made a pet of it.1
A few years later she married Archie King, another Bar CC cowboy, and they moved into the John’s Creek camp with E.H. Brainard. In 1892 she gave birth to a son not fifty feet from where little Sena Brainard and I were eating our supper. His name was Woods King, and he probably knew more about the Canadian River country and its history than any man of his generation. I was very fortunate to have spent many hours with Mr. King, asking questions, checking dates and names and historical sites. At the age of eighty, he still had a wonderful memory and a dry sense of humor. He died at the age of eighty-one in June of 1973, exactly a year after I ate supper in the house where he was born, across the table from the little girl who was named for his mother.
When plates had been shined with biscuit mops and chairs pushed back from the table, we settled into some good yarn swapping. Bill told the story of his rodeo down by John’s Creek that afternoon, and Ed howled and cackled. He understood. He’d broken a leg in a similar experience two years before.
Any storytelling session on the Brainard Ranch leads inevitably to Jim Scolfield. Jim, a tall strong man who feared nothing and nobody, worked as a cowboy and wolfer for the old man Brainard back in the 1890s, and for years after. When he was wolfing, Jim’s job was to hunt down and kill loafer wolves that were a scourge to the cattlemen back in the early days. These animals, extinct today except in the northern states, were both larger and more destructive than their coyote cousins, for while a coyote could satisfy himself on carrion, the wolves preferred a fresh kill at every meal. Working in pairs or packs, they would run a weak calf or even a full grown cow, slashing at the hind legs until the tendons had been severed.
Some wolfers used dogs or traps, but not Jim Scolfield. In the spring, when the loafer pups arrived, he would ride horseback until he spotted a she-wolf trotting across the plains. Then he would follow her to her den. His modus operandi from this point was very simple: since the wolves wouldn’t come out to him, he went in after them. Preceded by his six-shooter, he would snake his shoulders through the narrow hole until he had reached a point where he could see their eyes glowing in the gloom. Then he would open fire on the mother and drag the pups from the den.
Wolves usually chose the rocky ledges around the canyons for their dens, but one time Jim followed a wolf to a hole in a sandy bank. Tying his horse to a plum thicket, he loaded his pistol and started into the hole. He inched and wiggled his way into the narrow passage until only his boots remained outside. Then, with just enough light sifting through the hole to illuminate the yellow eyes of the mother wolf, he raised his pistol and took aim, just as he had done many times before. But before he could pull off a shot, the sand above him collapsed, cutting off his escape-and even worse, snuffing out the light.
And there was Big Jim, locked in a dark tomb with a lobo wolf.
As the shadows stretched out across the Canadian valley that evening, Mr. Brainard noticed Jim’s absence and began to worry. Fearing his wolfer had met with an accident, he rode out across the country and eventually located Jim’s horse, still tied to the plum thicket. He rode in a big circle around the horse and called out, but no one answered. When darkness fell, he abandoned the search and rode back to the ranchhouse, puzzled and worried over what could have happened to Jim.
The next morning he organized his cowboys into a search party and returned to the plum thicket. “Boys,” he said, “Jim’s horse was tied to this thicket, so he couldn’t be very far away. I want you to get down on your hands and knees and search every inch of ground until we find him.” And that’s what they did, beginning in a tight circle and moving outward, until one of the men spotted a boot heel protruding from the sand.
They dug him out and he was still alive. I wish we had a record of what he said.
Scolfield also saw action during the brief range war of the 1890s. At that time a number of settlers came to the river country looking for land and a fresh start. The big ranchers, who had been on the river for ten and fifteen years, resented the intrusion of these “nesters,” while the nesters were jealous of the influence of the large outfits. Squabbling arose over fences, water rights, timber, and political issues, and both sides armed for a fight. Haystacks on the Brainard and Turkey Track Ranches were burned, and cattle were gut-shot with small caliber rifles, so that the animals would live for several days and then die when the sniper was far away.
Jim Scolfield often went out on horseback for days at a time, observing with field glasses the burning and shooting. He knew everyone involved, and the other faction had let it be known that they intended to run E.H. Brainard out of the country and kill Scolfield. They did not succeed in doing either. Captain Bill McDonald of the Texas Rangers entered the case, and the Panhandle Range War ended with no major bloodshed.2
Years later, Jim suffered a stroke that put an end to his career as a cowboy. Too crippled to ride a horse any more, he moved down to Canadian where he raised vegetables on a little patch of land Mr. Brainard had given him. He made enough to live on, with a little left over for entertainment.
One day he hobbled into a saloon on Main Street in Canadian to have a little snort. Inside, he got to talking with another man, and by the middle of the afternoon both were well oiled. No doubt they had started out swapping horse and cowboy stories from the old days, laughing at jokes and giving each other a good-natured ribbing. But as the afternoon progressed, the whiskey began to talk and the humor went sour, until they were flinging insults at each other with no pretense of fun. Then the other fellow made a serious mistake. He called Jim an uncomplimentary name.
In his prime, Jim would have invited the man outside, or more likely, thrashed him on the spot while the insult was still fresh in both their minds. But now he suffered the double humiliation of old age: not only was he worthless as a cowboy, but he cut such a pathetic figure that no one would fight him. He wouldn’t have minded taking a whipping, but the fact that the other man wouldn’t even give him a chance to defend his honor was intolerable. Without a word, he left the bar and went home to “get the difference:” the old six-shooter he had carried into wolf dens and packed during the range war. He hobbled back to town and waited for the scoundrel to emerge. When he did, Jim took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. Struck in the chest, the man fell to the ground.
Having performed the awful deed, Jim didn’t know what to do next. He didn’t intend to run; Jim Scolfield had never run from anything or anybody in his life. But neither did he want to turn himself in to the sheriff. So, unable to think of anything better, he went to consult the best friend he had in the world, E.H. Brainard.
Mr. Brainard had just eased into a nice hot tub of water and was looking forward to a peaceful bath when he heard a tap at the door, and in walked Jim, stone-faced and pale. “Mr. Brainard, I just shot a man on Main Street. What do you reckon I ought to do?”
Mr. Brainard’s jaw just about dropped into the water. “You did what?”
Old Jim shifted uneasily on his cane and swallowed, “I done it. You heard me right.”
Shot a man on Main Street! That was the sort of thing Jim might have done in the old days, but good Lord, he was an old man now. And a cripple besides!
“Is he dead?”
“Couldn’t say, Mr. Brainard. I hit him in the chest and he went down.”
“Then he’s dead. Well, hand me my bathrobe. We’d better tum you in before the sheriff comes to get you. It’ll look better that way.”
But a moment later, Skillety Bill Johnson, the sheriff of Hemphill County, appeared at the door. “Lo, Jim. Afternoon, Mr. Brainard.” The men nodded. “I guess you know why I’m here, Jim.”
“I reckon I do.”
“You about ready to go?”
“I reckon I am.”
Jim surrendered his pistol and the two men left the house. Mr. Brainard stood there for a long time, shaking his head as he thought of the tragedy. Jim Scolfield was the best cowboy he’d ever worked, and now … now he was a murderer and would finish out his life in a lonely prison cell. That is, if they didn’t hang him first. It was very sad.
Or was it? The difference between comedy and tragedy in this story was a corpse, and as it turned out, there wasn’t a corpse. True, Jim had hit the man right in the ticker, but the ticker had turned out to be his pocket watch instead of his heart. The man was bruised, stunned, and drunk, but he wasn’t dead.
Can you see old Jim standing in front of Judge Baker the next day? He shifts his weight from one leg to the other and stares at the cracks in the floorboard, wishing he could tum himself into an ant and disappear into one of them. Above him on the bench towers the judge, his face a mixture of clabbered milk and Old Testament wrath. The courtroom is empty except for Mr. Brainard, who sits alone at the back, cleaning his fingernails with a pocket knife.
The judge bends forward, glaring over the tops of his spectacles, “Jim Scolfield, you old reprobate, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“The very idea, getting drunk in the middle of the day and shooting a man on Main Street!”
“Yes sir, but he called me a … “
“Well? You can’t shoot a man for speaking the truth, Jim. If I’d seen you slobbering drunk, I’m sure I’d have called you that or worse.”
“Yes sir,” says Jim, his head sinking deeper into his shoulders.
“Tell you what I’m going to do, Jim. I’m going to let you off this time, but,” he thrusts out a long boney finger, “if you ever pull another stunt like this again, by Moses and Jesus, I’ll send you so far up the river, they’ll have to pack air into you with mules. Understand?”
“All right, Mr. Brainard?” He calls to the back of the room.
The scowl on the judge’s face deepens. “Stand up, Ed, you’re in a court of law.”
Brainard drops his pocket knife and comes out of the chair.
“Ed, against my better judgment, I’m going to give this old goat another chance, but only if you both agree to certain conditions.
“I’m releasing him to your custody and supervision, and these are the conditions of probation. First, he isn’t to have another drop of whiskey or enter an establishment where whiskey is sold. Second, he’s to meet once a week with the ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, for prayer, Bible study, and discussions on the evils of drink.”
Jim blinks in shock, wondering if it wouldn’t be simpler if they just went ahead and hung him.
“And third, Ed, I want you to take this thing,” he holds up Jim’s six-shooter, “and sell it to the highest bidder and use the money to buy the best pocket watch you can find.” The judge stretches across the bench and says to Jim. “In case you were worried about it, Mr. Scolfield, your friend’s watch don’t keep good time anymore.”
Anyway, that’s the way I’ve imagined Jim Scolfield’s day in Judge Baker’s court. Maybe it really happened that way and maybe it didn’t. But as John Graves once said, “If it didn’t happen that way, it should have.”
Around ten o’clock, Ed Brainard—the grandson, that is—yawned and announced that if we were going to get up at five, we’d better get some sleep. Saying good night to Ed and Lilith and the children, Bill and I made our way to the trailer and the first beds we had seen since the trip began.
Morning would come very soon, for tomorrow was roundup and branding day on the Brainard Ranch.
Excerpted from John R. Erickson., Through Time and the Valley (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1995). Copyright 1995 by John R. Erickson. Reprinted by permission.
- The story of Sena and the bear comes from John McCarty’s Adobe Walls Bride.
- In Captain Bill McDonald, Texas Ranger, Albert Bigelow Paine discusses the Panhandle range wars on p. 158 ff.
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.