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Lupe and Rosa Work Side-by-Side

National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m Pat Tyrer from Canyon, Texas for the High-Plains-Public-Radio-Readers Book Club. I’ll be continuing my talk today on Elmer Kelton’s The Time it Never Rained. Today’s discussion concerns the clash of cultures in West Texas, the men who work the land and those who profit from it. And somewhere in the middle stands Charlie Flagg, rancher, employer, rugged individualist, the last of his kind.

Along with his wife, Mary, and son Tom, Charlie employs Lupe and Rosa Flores who have lived in a well-built frame house not far from the main house for seventeen years. Their five children have all been born and have grown up on Brushy Top ranch and have become a part of the Flagg’s extended family. The Flores children work the ranch alongside their father when not in school. Charlie considers himself to be open-minded and fair. He’s even learned a bit of Spanish. Each year, Charlie hires a crew of Mexican sheep shearers under the employ of Teofilo Garcia, all of whom are Texas natives. He shows no prejudice except when it comes to hiring undocumented workers who have crossed the border illegally. As he explains to the young Manuel, he can’t put up with the Border Patrol giving him problems, but when Manuel confesses to discovering a few men hiding in the brush, Charlie instructs Manuel to “tell them to come in and see me. I don’t want nobody to leave this place hungry, Mexican or white.” Of course generosity must be tempered with deprivation and as the rains continue to be ever more elusive, more and more men are traveling across the border looking for work whom Charlie must turn away.

The lack of rain, of course, affects the small rancher as well as the large rancher and as the years pass without rain, more and more of the businesses in Rio Seco close up and residents move away. Charlie remarks to his banker that you can’t even get a haircut any more in Rio Seco. On the high plains, ranchers unable to keep their cattle begin selling them off and canceling leases in an attempt to downsize and avoid losing everything they’ve managed to draw out of the now-barren landscape. With families leaving the area and moving into the cities, the Flaggs lose their best friends and closest neighbors to the drought. By the end of the novel there are few workers left to hire. When Teofilo arrives with his shearers, he brings only half of his crew and explains that it’s impossible to find shearers any more with all the dry weather. Charlie’s own flock had been cut to less than half of what it had been. Young men were leaving the area, abandoning ranch work for more opportunities in the cities.

As the drought continues, even Charlie’s rodeo-riding son, Tom, has returned to the ranch and taken a portion as his own, but as the years pass with no rain, Tom sells off his land, returning to other ventures. By the end of the novel, few are left on the high plains. Kelton notes that, “Charlie felt as though he had been to a funeral each time he saw a ranch fall idle somewhere around him” (275). And with the failed rain, the town, the land, and the people continue to suffer loss after loss. Even those at the beginning of the drought who accepted Federal monies and relied on the government to provide feed and direction have in the end lost both. At the start when Charlie refused aid, the government man called him “one of those rugged individualists,” yet commented that when men like Charlie went out of style, the world [would] be a poorer place (7). Thankfully there remain a few of these “rugged individualists” still around; one of whom I think of often is my father, who at 87, still goes out to the farm, in his words, “to do a little work.” In the end, the drought breaks, and the rains return, but for the little town of Rio Seco and its surrounding ranchers, it is too late; yet, Charlie and those like him will begin again, bowed but not broken.

I’m Pat Tyrer from Canyon, Texas for the High-Plains-Public-Radio-Readers Book Club. If you get a chance, pick up a copy of Elmer Kelton’s The Time it Never Rained. It’s well worth your time.

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