High Country Beauty Among the Thorns

El Capitan overlooks Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Photo: National Park Service
El Capitan overlooks Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Photo: National Park Service

It was many years ago and as the duly appointed travel flack for the State of Texas, I had been assigned to escort Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas up a narrow and winding switchback trail on horseback to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the tallest point in the state.

Douglas was a staunch conservationist, and he was in the midst of writing Farewell to Texas. He could see so much natural beauty being wasted and torn apart by the demands of an encroaching civilization, and he was hoping that his book might be a rude awakening that could lead to the salvation of great layers of ecological terrain not yet touched.

William O. Douglas
William O. Douglas

Douglas wanted the Guadalupe Mountain saved as a National Park.

So did we.

I dreaded another night in the little three-unit motel on the outskirts of Nickel Creek Station. I never camped. I didn’t like to camp. And I hated even worse the thought of being lugged up the mountain on the back of a horse that didn’t like me anymore than I liked him.

But whatever the justice wanted, the justice got.

He was rugged.

He was an outdoorsman.

He could stand tall on the top of Texas.

He was royalty among the rocks.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had brought along with him his new, young, good-looking wife who had recently replaced his former young, good-looking wife.

She was a beauty among the West Texas thorns, and she dutifully rode that horse every mile that Douglas rode, her blonde hair ruffled by the wind.

But was she the primary character?

Standing over against the log rails of the remuda was Noel Kincaid, the foreman of the Hunter Ranch, a man who had spent his whole life guarding the Guadalupes. He was old and as weathered as the rails. His face resembled the blade of a hatchet, worn, scarred, and still sharp enough to cut. His shoulders were slumped. His jeans were patched and faded from too many washtub washings out behind his house. His scuffed boots had never been polished, and they had been in the stirrups far too long. He knew every trail, cut, canyon, ravine, or creek bank in the mountains.

Noel Kincaid
Noel Kincaid

Kincaid hardly ever said a word.

But, as he saddled the horses, his eyes kept moving from the aging, craggy-faced, white-haired Douglas to that good-looking young wife of his.

He frowned.

He slowly shook his head.

He kept his thoughts to himself.

We camped for almost a week beneath the trees on Pine Top. Noel Kincaid kept the steaks cooked, the coffee boiling, the campfire burning day and night, and he shook out our sleeping bags when the fire began dying down to make sure that scorpions bugs, and snakes had not decided to join us between the folds of the bedroll.

He kept looking at the weathered features of William O. Douglas, who looked as though he had traveled far too many miles of a bad road.

His eyes would then dart back to the lively, lovely, unblemished face of the old justice’s wife.

His trophy wife

He wore her on his arm as gracefully as she wore the diamonds on her finger.

He was sixty-six.

She was twenty-four.

Noel Kincaid grinned.

He kept his thoughts to himself.

On our last night on the mountain, as the fire was withering away to embers, the lovely and lively Cathy Douglas excused herself early and walked toward her tent.

We watched her every footstep when she left, and not just because she was the only blonde, vivacious woman in the mountain. She had the wholesome, innocent face of an ingenue and the tempestuous body of a starlet.

And we sat in silence.

At last, Noel Kincaid rubbed his chin, finished his last cup of coffee, looked across the campfire smoke toward William O. Douglas, and said softly, “Mr. justice, I done think you overstocked your pasture this time.”

The hero always has the punch line.

The hero always has the last word.

 

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  • Don Newbury

    This piece reminds me of long-ago friend named John Ben Shepperd. He was escorting a Supreme Court Justice–maybe this one–out to West Texas. They stopped in Pecos, where Shepperd introduced the “JUSTICE” to a local justice of the piece. Latter suggested a game of checkers. They played, then the visitors left. Never bothered to tell the local that there was any difference in rank in the justices…..

    • Caleb Pirtle

      In West Texas, especially Pecos, there wasn’t any difference.

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