It was early summer in 1956. I was seven years old.
My Granddad, Big Button Estes, and I were going to ride our two-section pasture checking for screwworms. I remember thinking how nice it was to be out of school and riding with Granddad, whose nickname for me was "Tooter." Granddad's ranch was located north of the Greentree Country Club area, part of Block 39 of the Texas and Pacific Railway Company Survey.
All ranchers wanted their calves to be born between November and March, but there were always a few that were going to calve after the last freeze. When we worked cattle in the spring, my Granddad and Dad always put those cows in the pastures around the barns so we could watch when they calved and doctor the navels to prevent screwworms from getting started.
As we were feeding and catching and saddling our horses, I heard a cow bawl in the distance several times. I didn't think anything about it because cows frequently misplaced their calves at night and bawled until they found them.
We rode out into the Two Section pasture and started riding northwest toward the middle of the pasture. Granddad said, "Tooter, we've got to go check on that cow."
We rode across Midland Draw and up a little rise three-quarters of a mile from the house. Granddad stopped his horse, Jug, to listen and I stopped Little Joe. The cow was bawling about every 3 to 5 minutes and she was coming south down the west fence of the section.
Granddad rode forward about 10 yards and stopped again. He was a tall man and Jug was about 15.5 hands tall, so he could see the cow. [A "hand" is a measurement of four inches, used in measuring the height of horses. 15.5 hands would be 62 inches.] My little pony was only about 12 hands and I only saw mesquite brush though I could hear her bawl.
Granddad turned Jug and said, "Tooter, we have got to go back to the house." And I said, "Why?" and he answered, "That cow may have rabies. You get in front of me and you make him trot."
I turned Little Joe and we started for the house. Granddad was right behind us. We hit a long trot and Little Joe was about to jar my insides out. We came across Midland Draw and Granddad took down his catch rope and busted Little Joe right on the hindquarters. We really did come to the house then!
From what I knew, there were a couple of things wrong with what we were doing. First, no child rides in front of an adult. Grownups go first; kids come behind. Second, you never ever trot or run your horse to the barns. That will put you in real danger of getting a spanking because it will ruin a horse very quickly. You always walk your horse to the barn.
We got to the pens and Granddad got down, handed me his reins, then shut the gate. He told me, "OK, Tooter, walk the horses in a big circle until I call you." He went to his pickup, then herded all the cows and calves that had come into the west lot into the big east lot, which put them in a different pasture and shut the gate on them.
He told me to bring him Jug to and to keep walking Little Joe to cool him out. Little Joe was still really sweaty but had quit breathing hard. Granddad unsaddled Jug, put his saddle away, and put Jug in a small pen that did not have any water. He had me bring Joe to him unsaddled him. One thing that I will always remember is that Granddad took the curry comb and ran it over Joe, then put my saddle away for me as I took Joe to the little pen. He had not done that for me in several years.
I was worried about the horses not having any water but I knew that a hot horse drinking water could kill him.
We could hear the cow bawl and she was getting closer. We got in the pickup and left.
On the way to Midland, I asked, "Granddad, what's wrong with that cow?" He said, "Tooter, I'm afraid she has a bad disease and she can give it to us and all the other animals. I have to get to town and get a big gun and kill her. I hope your dad can come with his rifle and shoot her."
We got back to their house on west Tennessee and my grandmother Nanny was really surprised to see us back so quickly. Granddad talked to her a few minutes. Then he called the Superior pipe yard there in town where my Dad worked and said he needed Little Button Estes to call him as soon as possible; that everyone was all right but there was a problem at home.
Nanny called Mother and Mom came right down to their house. They all talked a few minutes and Granddad said if "Son" could not get here to shoot her with his big gun, then he and Big Ed Darnell, the sheriff, would have to do it but he wanted to shoot her close to the house so they could pile lumber on the body and burn it.
Mother took me home and put me in a hot tub of water and washed all my clothes in Lysol. I am sure she talked to her cousin who was a registered nurse and also to our family doctor.
Granddad went back to the ranch to watch for the cow and tend to the horses. He told Mother he was really afraid he had gotten my little horse too hot but he had to get me out of there. By that time, Dad had phoned. He was a good way south of Fort Stockton setting up a rig and said he would be home as quickly as he could.
Granddad came in about sundown. He said the cow had gotten to the gate about 4:00 and tried to get in the lot. Then she followed the fence around to the dirt tank and pawed and hooked the mud with her horns. She "bellered" for quite a while then walked up the east fence. All the other cattle stood out in the pasture as far as they could and did not go near her. I heard Granddad tell Mother that Little Joe was all right and I was very relieved but this was not a time for children to be talking.
Dad arrived home the next afternoon around 1:30. Granddad had been out at the ranch and had probably spent the night in his pickup and had come home about noon. The fear was that she would die in the pasture and it would be difficult to burn her carcass but Granddad had listened all night and she was still on her feet.
The thing I remember most about this is that Granddad and Daddy left in the same pickup. They always went in separate trucks. It was very serious. Dad had his big rifle and they left in Granddad's pickup. Mom followed them in our pickup. They left about 2:00 in the afternoon.
I stayed with Nanny. I was really worried about Little Joe and the other horses. I was scared about my Mom, Dad, and Granddad. Nanny sat me down at her kitchen table and told me about rabies.
Years later Mom told me about how they killed the cow. She said they got to the barn and were relieved to hear her still bawling a little less than a mile away. Mom said it was the most awful bawl she had ever heard. She was raised on a ranch outside of Breckenridge, Texas and had often heard cows bawl for water. But she said this bawl was far worse than that. It raised the hair on the back of her neck.
They all walked out in the pasture and decided where Dad was going to drop her. They drove down the outside fence until they could see her. Mom said she had the blind staggers and was bawling almost constantly. The cow would occasionally stop and try to fight a bush or shadow, but mostly she kept staggering and bawling, coming east down Midland Draw.
They went back to the pens and Dad got out of the pickup and went out the Northwest gate while she and Granddad waited by the corner post. When the cow was about 50 yards away, Dad walked out in the pasture where he had a clear shot. Mom said that when he stepped out of the pen she was scared to death for him.
He let the cow get about 40 yards from the gate and then shot her in the chest. Mother said she didn't even kick.
The men would not let Mom get out of the pickup. Granddad had a bunch of old lumber in a pipe rack not far away and he and Dad started carrying lumber. When they had a big pile on top of the carcass, they got the kerosene and set it on fire. Mom and Granddad did not come home until late that night. Dad stayed at the fire in our pickup and came in about noon the next day. He shot two coyotes and a bobcat that were drawn to the smell. He took a pitchfork and threw their bodies on the fire.
They burned the cow's carcass three times. Both of them were careful where they walked. The second time they burned her, they tossed all the bones up into a pile and piled more lumber on them and set it afire. Dad burned his oilfield boots in the second fire. I can't imagine Granddad burning his cowboy boots but maybe he did. The third time, about 72 hours later, Dad brought some old oilfield timbers and put them on the few bones left and set those on fire. Dad stayed at the fire the entire time. I don't know how they kept the pasture from catching fire but Dad had big buckets of water he carried from the tank to the burn site.
Everyone was concerned. Big Ed Darnell, the sheriff, came out and looked. The game warden came out and looked. Flop Roberts, general manager of the Scharbauer cowboys, came over from Clarence Scharbauer Jr's South Curtis headquarters north of Midland.
I believe Daddy had all the horses vaccinated for rabies, which was not common, but we were with our horses all the time.
Sometime during all this, Dad sat down and talked to me. He told me that I could not go the the ranch with just me and Granddad because "Daddy can't watch you and get his work done." I couldn't play around the barn and saddle house. I had to stay in the yard unless a grown-up was with me. Everyone was very careful.
Nanny seldom went to the ranch; she stayed home and fixed lunch. But that summer she went with Granddad and several times and she and I would stay in the yard. She would pick peaches or apricots and we would check all the bird nests. Our dog could not go to the ranch all summer.
Granddad carried a 22 rifle that summer and shot every fox, coyote, or skunk that he saw. Skunks were supposed to all carry rabies. I heard someone east of us had a horse die of rabies. I know Granddad watched our livestock very carefully that summer. He would stand and watch the horses and the cows as they came in and watered. He and Young Lea or Mother rode every day. Any time they saw an animal standing off by itself, they rode over and checked it.
It was August before I was allowed to ride with Granddad again. We did not have another animal go rabid, though Granddad shot a fox that he said was "acting funny" and I heard Flop Roberts tell Dad that his cowboys had shot a couple of foxes that were acting strange.
*Virginia Estes is a lifelong Midland resident, She often spent time on her grandfather's ranch. Her account of the rabies incident provides a snapshot of West Texas ranching life in the mid-twentieth century from the perspective of a young girl.