Wednesday, July 26, 2017

March 6, 2017 — Grace Under Pressure In The Texas Panhandle

Ol' Walter Ned (Skip) Hollandsworth last appeared in this blog a little over year ago with an outstanding profile of Texas writer Larry McMurtry. Now, Ol'Skip has outdone hisself with a tragedy in March 2017 on a ranch in the Texas Panhandle. [See the article with photos and videos here.] If this is a (fair & balanced) fulfillment of Ernest Hemingway's definition of courage, so be it.

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The Day The Fire Came
By W. N. "Skip" Hollandsworth

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On the morning of March 1, Todd Lindley, a forty-year-old science and operations officer with the National Weather Service, walked into his office in Norman, Oklahoma, and sat down in front of his four computer screens. Lindley specializes in weather on the southern Great Plains, a mostly flat five-hundred-mile expanse that runs from Kansas to just below the Panhandle of Texas. That morning, on one of the screens, he noticed a storm system that meteorologists call a “midlatitude cyclone,” a pinwheel of clouds spinning counterclockwise over the open waters of the Pacific, two thousand miles away. Lindley wheeled his chair closer to that screen and typed a few commands on the keyboard. The computer projected that the midlatitude cyclone would reach the northwestern coastline of the United States by March 3, head toward the Rocky Mountains, and swoop down on to the southern Great Plains on March 6, bringing with it wind gusts of at least 50 miles an hour.

Lindley stared at his screen for several seconds. Then he murmured a single word. “Fire.”

For the past couple of months, Lindley had been worried about the possibility of a prairie fire sweeping across the southern Great Plains. After enduring several years of drought, the entire area had received a large amount of rain during the spring and summer of 2016, which in turn had produced an immensity of grass, three to four feet high in some pastures. Now, in these final days of winter, that grass was dormant and dry as hay. All that was needed to set that grass ablaze was a few sparks from an untended campfire, a passing train engine, a malfunctioning power line, or a cigarette butt thrown out a car window. On an especially windy day, that fire could spiral out of control within minutes.

Already in January and February, the Panhandle had seen several small fires. In Amarillo, a utility pole had snapped and set off a fire behind a Toot’n Totum that burned an acre of grassland. In nearby Pampa, a grass fire had closed two highways for an afternoon, and another grass fire had advanced toward the town of Tulia, prompting the evacuation of a neighborhood before it was put out.

But Lindley sensed that March 6 was going to be different. Besides the high winds, temperatures were expected to soar to 80 degrees that day, about 20 degrees above normal, and the relative humidity was supposed to drop into the single digits. With such hot, dry, and windy conditions, Lindley suspected the southern Plains might get not just one fire. It could get multiple fires, a phenomenon known as a firestorm. The only question was where those fires would hit.

Lindley quickly sent an email to other National Weather Service meteorologists, state forestry officials, and fire chiefs who work western Kansas, western Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle, notifying them of the computer projections. “Current solutions highlight the ejection of a shortwave trough and a highly amplified thermal ridge near the 100th meridian,” he wrote. “Appears to be worthy of an early heads up!”

One of Lindley’s co-workers walked into his office and asked if he really was convinced a fire was coming.

Lindley just nodded his head. It could be a long day, he said. A very, very long day.

As Lindley was sending his email, Cody Crockett, a twenty-year-old cowboy, was at work on the nine-thousand-acre Franklin Ranch, seventy or so miles northeast of Amarillo. The Franklin is one of the more famous ranches in the eastern Panhandle. Purchased in 1936 by Oliver Morris Franklin, the inventor of the vaccine for blackleg, a virulent disease that kills cattle, the ranch is now owned by three of his granddaughters (two of whom live in Amarillo, the other in Pampa), who tend to bring their families to visit on weekends and for vacations. The Franklin is a beautiful spread, its main house and guest house nestled in a tree-lined draw, near a pond and a gurgling creek. There’s a swimming pool and a tennis court. Throughout the ranch, wildlife abounds: white-tailed deer, roadrunners, quail, doves, and wild turkey. In the distance, cattle quietly graze on pastures that stretch out like a vast sea.

Cody was as lean as a sapling, six-feet-one and 185 pounds. He lived in a two-bedroom foreman’s house about a half mile from the ranch headquarters. He was almost always up and dressed by sunrise. He’d down a bowl of cereal—he preferred an off-brand version of Lucky Charms—walk outside to feed the ranch’s horses, and then saddle one of the horses, load him into a trailer hooked to a flatbed pickup truck, and head for the pastures.

That morning, Cody drove to the Franklin’s north pastures so he could check on eight hundred steers that had been shipped to the ranch a couple of weeks earlier. Each of the steers weighed around 450 pounds, and Cody’s job was to have them fattened up to at least 750 pounds by October, when they would be shipped to a feed yard and then on to the slaughterhouse. He drove slowly through the pastures, blowing the truck’s horn to get the steers’ attention. Attached to the bed of his pickup was a large metal feeder that dumped pellets of high-protein cow cake on the ground for the steers to eat. At some point that morning he untrailered his horse and went “prowling,” as cowboys like to say. Whenever he saw a steer with its head down or ears drooping—signs of illness—he grabbed his long rope, made a loop, swung it into the air, fired it around the steer’s neck, dismounted, grabbed a medicine kit from his saddle bag, injected the steer with an antibiotic, and within minutes was back on his horse, prowling some more.

Cody checked the windmills and water tanks. He examined the fences to see if any of them needed patching. He then drove over to the west pasture, where he dumped more cake on the ground for forty Angus heifers.

The heifers belonged to Sloan Everett, the 35-year-old husband of Liesl Austin Everett, a daughter of one of the Franklin’s owners. Sloan himself came from a prominent ranching family. His father, Jim Everett, runs the Everett Cattle Company, which owns four ranches, totaling nearly 19,000 acres, just outside the West Texas town of Breckenridge, about a four-hour drive south of the Franklin. Sloan helped his father manage the ranches, and by all accounts, he was a smart cowman. In October 2015, when the pastures in the Breckenridge area were turning bare from drought, he had received the Franklin family’s permission to ship some heifers to the west pasture, which had better grass at the time, and have them bred with bulls. Now the heifers were healthy and calving. Prowling through the herd that morning, Cody was especially attentive. Sloan had recently told Cody that he would soon be driving up to the Franklin to get a look at his livestock, and the last thing Cody wanted Sloan to see was a sluggish heifer or a sick baby calf barely able to stand.

Cody took a break. As he did every day, he called or texted his girlfriend, Sydney Wallace, who worked in Amarillo as a nurse in the emergency room of Baptist St. Anthony’s Hospital. Sydney was 23, slim and blond—her friends said she looked like Taylor Swift. Whenever she had a couple of days off, she loved visiting the Franklin to be with Cody, always bringing along her little white Maltese dog, Dale. In fact, Sydney was planning to drive to the Franklin later that week, and Cody couldn’t wait to see her. He had told his mother, Kristie, that he and Sydney had been talking about marriage—not soon, but someday. They had even Googled photos of wedding rings on his phone. “There’s no one like her,” Cody liked to say. “No one like my Syd.”

That afternoon, Cody worked more cattle. It was a glorious day on the Franklin, the temperatures mild and the wind a whispery breeze. Clouds drifted across the sky and birds turned circles in the air. As the day came to an end, the sun set slowly over the pastures, its reddish-violet hue spreading across the sky.

At that moment, it was simply impossible to imagine that something awful was already headed the Franklin’s way.

Everyone who knew Cody said he was born to be a cowboy. Both of his grandfathers worked as cowboys on ranches in the eastern Panhandle, and his 52-year-old father, Brock, is also a lifelong cowboy who began working on Panhandle ranches when he was a young teenager.

Brock and Kristie had raised Cody and his three siblings—his brothers, Clay and Ben, and his sister, Callie—on a small ranch just outside the dusty town of McLean (population 775), about twenty miles from the Franklin Ranch. All the Crockett children took to the cowboy life, but Cody was consumed with it. At the age of two, he was riding one of his father’s old quarter horses, and at three, he was roping dummies with a piggin’ string. When he was in elementary school, he was tagging along with Brock to spring brandings, where he roped calves and dragged them to the fire. “Even back then, Cody was throwing a good, flat loop, which isn’t easy to do,” says Brock, a stocky man who used to ride broncos in amateur rodeos. “Other cowboys would tell me that he was on his way to making a good hand. Out here, for a little boy, that’s as good a compliment as you can get.”

On Saturdays, Cody would lie on the floor in the living room, drink Dr Peppers with one of his buddies, and talk about the big ranches, like the Four Sixes, that he planned to work on one day. When older cowboys came over to the house to talk, he’d sit right beside them, his elbows on his knees. “You could almost see him making mental notes as they talked about what ropes they used or which trucks they liked,” says Kristie, who teaches second grade at the McLean public school. “My daddy [Bobby Thompson, who for many years was one of the cowboys on the Four Sixes,] once told him, ‘Cody, there’s a difference between working cattle and disturbing cattle.’ Cody used to repeat that line every chance he got.”

During his high school years, his classmates named him Most Handsome and Best Dressed, even though he wore the same thing to school every day: a Western snap-button shirt, a Western belt, ironed blue jeans, boots from Amarillo’s Bustamante Cowboy Boots, and, of course, his cowboy hat. He was the star running back on the McLean Tigers’ six-man football team, good enough to play in junior college, people said. But cowboying was already his life. Sitting in a classroom, he’d get on his phone and buy hay for a local man who paid him to look after a small herd of cattle. In the late afternoons, no matter how long football practice lasted, he would break horses in a small arena next to his house. When his senior year came around, his parents asked him if he wanted a senior class ring. No, Cody said, he’d prefer a new pair of spurs. “He wore those spurs everywhere,” Kristie says. “It was a nice sound, listening to those rowels click against the floor.”

It was also during Cody’s senior year that a man named Joe Magee paid him a visit. The 69-year-old Magee is a longtime Panhandle cowman, his face as wrinkled as an old saddle. He makes leasing arrangements with the owners of ranches, including the Franklin, to run his cattle on their pastures. Magee had known the Crockett family for many years, and whenever he saw Cody at work, he’d let out a whistle. “Roping, herding, sorting, breaking colts—there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” Magee says. “And he was a ‘yes, sir–no, sir’ kind of young man, respectful to everyone, as honest as the day is long. I knew that I needed to hire him, because if I didn’t, someone else would.”

Magee told Cody he wanted him to be his full-time cowboy on the Franklin as soon as Cody graduated from high school. Cody was ecstatic. At his graduation ceremony, in May 2015, he left his diploma wedged between two chairs and was at the ranch early the next morning, working cattle. Magee paid him around $2,500 a month and also gave him a “beef”—a side of butchered, frozen beef for him to eat. (There’s a long tradition in the Panhandle that cowboys who work full-time on a ranch receive a beef each year from their employers.)

Considering that Cody worked seven days a week, he wasn’t exactly getting rich. He also had to pay for his own health insurance to cover any on-the-job injuries, like “horse wrecks” (when a horse falls on a cowboy). But he wasn’t complaining. “He was one of the hardest-working cowboys we had,” says Magee’s son Destry, who helps oversee his father’s business. “If we had told him to dig a hole to China, he’d have said ‘Yes, sir’ and gone running after a shovel, and he’d have had a smile on his face the whole time.”

In September 2015, when Cody was suffering from intense headaches and a high fever, his mother drove him to the emergency room at Baptist St. Anthony’s. Sydney Wallace walked up to his bed and said, “Hi, I’m your nurse.” Cody immediately flexed his biceps, hoping to impress her. Another nurse later slipped him Sydney’s number. When he called, Sydney said she’d let him take her hiking in the Palo Duro Canyon, but she wouldn’t go to dinner or to a movie until she got to know him better. “I laughed,” Kristie says. “I realized right then that Cody had met his match.”

Sydney had grown up around Austin, spent her high school years in Monahans, a small town near Odessa, and then enrolled at West Texas A&M University in Canyon to study nursing. “She loved the pace and excitement of the emergency room,” says her mother, Lisa Sanchez. “She used to tell me that she wanted to move to Dallas to work in the trauma center at Parkland Hospital. And I’m sure she would have done it. But then she met Cody.”

On that first date, after their hike through the canyon, Sydney did let Cody take her to dinner, at Bracero’s, her favorite Mexican restaurant in Amarillo. The next day, he brought her to McLean to watch his little brother Ben play in a junior high football game. Within a week, they were an item. On nights she worked, he’d show up at the hospital with Taco Bell. On one of his trips to Amarillo, he stopped at a boutique called the English Rose and bought her some Kendra Scott jewelry. Sydney, in turn, bought him Cinch Western shirts and a pair of tennis shoes, which he’d never buy for himself, so he’d have something to put on at the end of the day when his feet hurt from wearing boots.

As she realized she was falling in love, Sydney traded in her small Kia Rio and bought a Chevy Traverse SUV, so she could better navigate the rutted dirt roads that led to the Franklin. At the ranch, Cody took her on horseback rides. They went swimming in the pool at the ranch headquarters. Sydney and her dog, Dale, often rode with Cody in the pickup to feed cattle. (She liked to jump out of the truck to open and shut the gates that led from one pasture to another.) One day, she went with him to a spring branding, where she castrated several bulls.

At night, they often drove into McLean to have supper with Cody’s family. (Some rural Texans still call lunch “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.”) Or they went to the Red River Steakhouse, where she would order a steak kebab and he would order a jalapeƱo bacon cheeseburger. One night they visited the dance hall in McLean—which the locals jokingly refer to as the McLean Country Club—and they two-stepped around the floor.

“What we loved about Sydney was that she just took to our way of life,” says Thacker Haynes, the pastor of the McLean United Methodist Church, who also owns a small ranch outside of town. “And, boy, did she have spunk.” One Sunday morning, Cody and Sydney came to church. As they were walking in, he introduced her to the pastor. “I said, ‘Cody, thank you for bringing your girlfriend.’ And Sydney replied, ‘He didn’t bring me. I brought him.’ ”

At some point, Cody also introduced Sydney to members of the Franklin family. One day, she got to meet Sloan Everett, the young Breckenridge rancher, and his wife, Liesl. Sloan and Liesl looked like the portrait of Texas ranch royalty. He was boyishly handsome, with sandy-colored hair, blue eyes, and an easy smile. Liesl was also blue-eyed and as elegant as a swan, her blond hair usually pulled back in a ponytail. They had two very young, blue-eyed children—a daughter named Scarlett Austin and a son named Samuel Sloan, who babbled cheerfully and loved being held.

Sloan was raised in Breckenridge. He attended Baylor University, graduating in 2004 with a double major in finance and entrepreneurship. He spent a couple of years in Oklahoma working as an auditor for ConocoPhillips and then moved to Dallas to be a financial analyst for Hunt Oil. In 2009, he met Liesl, who was five years younger. She too was a Baylor graduate, a fashion merchandising major who had moved to Dallas to work for the online division of Neiman Marcus.

Both Sloan and Liesl were devout Christians who unabashedly talked about God’s presence in their lives. At the start of their first date, in 2009, he spent a few minutes on the phone with two inner-city kids he mentored, arranging a time to pick them up for church. “When I got home that night, I called my parents and told them I had never met a guy with such character,” Liesl says. “He was different, genuinely kind and sincere. It was hard for me not to think about him.”

As they continued to date, Sloan told her that despite his promising future in the oil business, what he really wanted to do was return to Breckenridge to work on his family’s ranches. He took Liesl to his small North Dallas apartment one night, brought out his guitar, and played her “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” from the 1959 John Wayne western Rio Bravo. He read to her from one of his favorite books, Ben Green’s memoir Horse Tradin’. One afternoon, Liesl pinned a photo of Sloan on the wall of her cubicle at Neiman’s. He was in his ranch garb, his hat pulled down over his eyes. “I looked at that photo over and over, and I thought, ‘I want to marry that man,’ ” she says.

In July 2011, they did marry, at an outdoor ceremony on the Franklin, attended by more than two hundred friends and relatives. Liesl walked down the aisle to the theme song from the miniseries Lonesome Dove. After a Caribbean honeymoon, they moved into a three-bedroom home on one of the Everett ranches. Early in the mornings, Sloan would work cattle with the Everett cowboys, and in the late afternoons, he’d lift weights at the local gym or run on the high school track. At night, he’d drive to his parents’ house to talk with his father about ways to improve the ranches’ productivity and increase the size of the herds. And then he’d go home and work on his computer, putting the ranches’ business operations on QuickBooks or studying online reports about bulls that were for sale.

“Sloan was learning the cattle business from top to bottom,” says the elder Everett, who is 66. (Jim himself had left Breckenridge after high school to attend college and law school, and he had worked briefly as a prosecutor for the Dallas County district attorney’s office before returning to Breckenridge to take over the family’s cattle company.) “He was so smart and so thorough. There was no doubt in my mind that when the time came for me to retire, the ranches were going to be in very good hands.”

In fact, Sloan was so conscientious about his job that he regularly drove to the Franklin just to check on that small herd of heifers that he had put on the west pasture. Liesl and the children usually came with him so they could spend time on the ranch and also see her parents in Amarillo.

This past February, after Cody let him know that the heifers were starting to calve, Sloan talked to Liesl, who was three months pregnant with their third child, and they decided to travel with the kids to Amarillo on March 3. From there, Sloan planned to go with Liesl’s father and her brothers on a quick two-day ski trip to Taos. He told Liesl that when he got back, he wanted to swing by the Franklin.

Maybe we can get there Sunday afternoon, March 5, Sloan said. Or Monday, March 6.

Sounds good to me, Liesl said.

After sending his March 1 email about the midlatitude cyclone, Todd Lindley, the National Weather Service meteorologist, could think about little else. He kept his eyes glued on his computer screens as the storm system, which was still 15,000 to 20,000 feet in the atmosphere, raced over the Pacific Coast. He talked extensively to Greg Murdoch, a National Weather Service senior forecaster who is based in Midland. They studied the movement of the cyclone’s “low-level thermal ridge,” and they double-checked the temperatures and relative humidity that were forecast for March 6. The day was definitely going to be hot and dry. Lindley sighed. The entire southern Great Plains was turning into a tinderbox.

On March 4, the National Weather Service began issuing warnings to western Kansas, western Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle about the potential for wildfires. In Texas, officials with the Texas A&M Forest Service made sure their firefighting aircraft—single-engine air tankers that can drop six to eight hundred gallons of thick red fire retardant per flight—were completely fueled and ready to fly. The forest service officials also ordered nearly thirty of their best firefighters, some from as far away as East Texas, to travel to the Panhandle. Meanwhile, in the rural towns, members of the volunteer fire departments double-checked their “grass rigs,” customized one-ton trucks that carry four hundred gallons of water and can move quickly through off-road terrain.

Early on the morning of March 6, as the midlatitude cyclone reached the Rocky Mountains, the winds began tumbling toward the ground, and they were indeed gusting up to 50 miles an hour—equivalent to the wind speed of a decent-sized tropical storm. Around 11:30 a.m., the winds reached the southern Great Plains. In Beaver County, Oklahoma, a power line started swinging in the wind. A shower of sparks fell to the ground and a spot fire sprang up, the size of a fist. Usually such a small fire stays “benign,” to use the parlance of wildfire specialists, and quickly dies out. But pushed by the wind, this fire kept growing, the flames wrapping around the wilted grass, and it was soon on the run, galloping eastward across an open range.

Within an hour, there were reports of half a dozen more grass fires in Oklahoma and Kansas. Around 1:45 p.m., a couple of spot fires were seen three miles north of Amarillo, along U.S. 287. They were a mile and a half apart and most likely had been caused by sparks from a chain being dragged along the pavement by a truck or trailer. The two fires quickly merged and turned into one large fire. Brad Smith, a Texas A&M Forest Service wildfire analyst, drove to the scene. By the time he got there, the fire was at least three miles wide and the flames at the front were twenty feet high. It was moving at 6 to 7 miles per hour, as fast as Smith had ever seen a wildfire move on the Texas Plains.

Around 2:30 p.m., there was a report of another Texas fire, this one near the town of Perryton, in the northeast corner of the Panhandle. John Erickson—a 73-year-old rancher who also writes the best-selling Hank the Cowdog children’s book series about a smelly but lovable cowdog that lives on a Panhandle ranch—drove his pickup to the top of a bluff to get a look at it. Over the years, Erickson had seen his share of prairie fires. In The Case of the Blazing Sky, his fifty-first Hank book (Erickson has published 69 of them since 1983), he has Hank tell his young readers, “I guess you know what strong wind does to a fire. In dry weather, it will turn a little fire into a roaring monster . . . a roaring, leaping, hissing monster.” That afternoon, standing on the bluff, Erickson realized a monster was on its way. He watched the fire triple in size. The smoke, he would later say, looked like a cloud from an atom bomb explosion. He drove back to his ranch house and told his wife, Kris, to pack some clothes in a suitcase. They needed to get out of there as soon as they could.

Along with the Texas A&M Forest Service firefighters, at least a dozen Panhandle volunteer fire departments arrived to do battle with the fires near Amarillo and Perryton. The men and women stood on their grass rigs and shot streams of water at the sides of the fires to keep them from getting wider. Using road graders and bulldozers, they built firebreaks to slow the blazes’ forward momentum or divert the fires away from populated areas.

But the two fires were relentless. They jumped over many of the firebreaks and hurtled across pasture after pasture—scorching hundreds of thousands of acres. The fires burned down barns, outbuildings, and ranch houses. (Erickson lost his house and his adjoining office, but he did escape with his Mac, which contained his most recent unpublished Hank stories.) They swept over bawling cattle and panicked horses. Pronghorn, racing away from the fires, ran straight into barbed-wire fences, decapitating themselves. In the town of Canadian, a young man named Cade Koch left his job at a hardware store and headed for his home in Lipscomb, 25 miles away, so that he could check on his wife, who they had just learned was pregnant. He tried to drive through a thick cloud of smoke that was coming from the Perryton fire, but the truck stalled. Cade, who was only 25 years old, suffocated from smoke inhalation.

And then, about 3:45 that afternoon, a report came in of a third fire in Texas, this one in the southeastern part of the Panhandle, near the town of Lefors. It was headed due east, straight toward the Franklin Ranch, six miles away.

As promised, Sydney had driven out to see Cody. And as always, she had brought along Dale, her dog. While riding through the north pastures with Cody, she had Snapchatted a photo of Dale sticking his head out the window of Cody’s pickup, looking at some yearlings.

By 4 p.m., they were back at Cody’s house. They saw a plume of smoke in the distance. It looked as if a small plane might have crashed several miles away. At 4:06, Cody got a call from his father, Brock, who was at his ranch, standing outside by his barn. He too was looking at the smoke. Cody told his father that he was going to drive to the western side of the Franklin to see if a fire was threatening any of the ranch’s cattle.

Cody saddled and trailered one of his favorite horses, Junior, a bay-colored gelding with a black mane and black tail. Meanwhile, Sydney hopped into the passenger seat of the pickup. If he tried to persuade her to stay behind, she was having none of it. (“She wasn’t one who was told, ‘You stay here,’ ” one of her friends would later say.) But she did one thing that was out of the ordinary: she left Dale behind in the house.

Cody drove west for a couple of miles on one of the ranch’s dirt roads. When he and Sydney reached the west pasture, he came to a sudden stop and no doubt stared through the windshield in bewilderment—because there, standing in the pasture, was Sloan Everett.

Earlier that afternoon, Sloan, Liesl, their children, and Liesl’s mother, Jane, had driven to the Franklin from Amarillo. They had arrived around 3 p.m., and by 4, they too were looking at the smoke on the horizon. Sloan had told Liesl that he was going to take a quick trip out to the west pasture to make sure his heifers and calves were not in the line of the fire.

He had driven one of the ranch’s four-wheelers to the pasture. With his cellphone, he had taken a few photos of the smoke, which was still far away and looked to be only a couple of football fields in width. But by the time Cody and Sydney pulled into the west pasture, at around 4:30, conditions were quickly changing. The smoke was getting closer, and below the smoke was a visible line of fire. Sloan called Liesl and told her that she, her mother, and the kids needed to leave the ranch immediately.

Sloan, however, wasn’t going anywhere. Neither was Cody. The young rancher and the young cowboy had devoted their lives to taking care of cattle, and they were not about to let those forty heifers and the newly born calves burn to death. “I’m not sure if city people will ever understand this,” says Magee, Cody’s boss. “But out here, you get up every morning and you think about what you need to do that’s best for your cows. That’s your responsibility. You look after cattle. You don’t think twice about it.”

Sloan and Cody decided that the best way to save the heifers and calves was to move them to the south, so they’d be below the fire as it swept eastward. Cody unloaded Junior. He most likely told Sydney to drive the truck to a gate on the southern side of the west pasture and blow the truck’s horn. Most of the cattle, thinking they were about to be fed, would have followed the truck. Cody, who was on Junior, and Sloan, who was on the four-wheeler, trailed behind the herd, pushing along the heavily pregnant heifers that were moving more slowly.

They must have constantly been looking over their shoulders, staring at the smoke, trying to track the fire’s progress. Sloan made another quick call to Liesl to make sure that they had left the ranch. (They had.) But the call went straight to Liesl’s voicemail. (Cell service on Panhandle ranches is notoriously spotty.) When Liesl later played back the message, she could hear Sloan calling to his heifers, making a yip yip yip sound. At the end of the message, she heard him say “Liesl?” And then the line went dead.

The gate at the southern end of the west pasture led to the neighboring Gething Ranch. Sydney probably jumped out of the truck to open the gate, and the heifers trudged into an empty pasture, their big bodies swaying and their heads swinging. The calves, some of them only a week old, trotted next to their mothers. Sloan, Cody, and Sydney had to have felt a sense of relief—perhaps even jubilation. They could see the smoke was headed due east. They—and the cattle—were out of the line of fire.

But at around 5:30, the wind inexplicably shifted, ever so slightly. Instead of blowing straight out of the west, it started coming from the northwest. Panhandle residents standing in their front yards would barely have noticed the change. But on the Gething Ranch, Sloan, Cody, and Sydney must have immediately sensed what was happening. The fire, now veering in a southeasterly direction, was moving straight toward them.

Cody knew the Gething well. As a teenager, he’d done “day work” (what cowboys call part-time work) on the ranch. He knew its pastures were dotted with sand hills, which look somewhat like sand dunes next to a seashore, except that the hills are covered with grass and scrub brush. And the sand hills offered a chance of survival. If they could get on top of a hill, it was possible that the fire would stay in a draw, go around the hill, and miss them altogether.

There is no way of knowing exactly what happened next. But here is one likely scenario. Cody and Sydney climbed onto Junior and headed up the closest hill, leaving the truck and trailer behind. Sloan was right behind them on his four-wheeler. Sydney wrapped her arms around Cody’s waist, hanging on for dear life. When Cody turned in his saddle, he could see the fire. It was writhing up the hill, spitting red sparks, with columns of throat-clogging smoke swirling in front of the flames. The burning twigs on the bushes crackled like gunfire.

At some point, Sloan lost control of the four-wheeler and was thrown to the ground. (The four-wheeler was later found tangled in a barbed-wire fence.) Cody and Sydney also ended up on the ground. Either a terrified Junior bucked them off his back, or the horse stumbled in the sand, fell to his knees, and rolled. Sloan, Cody, and Sydney did the only thing they could do: they ran. Soon, smoke enveloped them like a gray-black curtain, shutting out the world. They couldn’t see or breathe. Disoriented, they ran in different directions, gasping for air, pumping their legs through the sand as fast as they could.

They didn’t get far. Within seconds, the flames were on top of them.

The fire kept pushing eastward until the volunteer fire departments and the forest service eventually got it under control. On a bluff above the Franklin, several cowboys gathered. Joe Magee, his son Destry, and Cody’s father, Brock, were also there. Because Cody hadn’t returned their texts or calls for the past couple of hours, they knew something was wrong. They hooked their thumbs over their belts and squinted toward the distant burned-out pastures. They didn’t say much.

One of Magee’s cowboys, 37-year-old Sy Brown, pulled up in his truck. When he’s not working on a Magee ranch, Brown serves as the volunteer fire chief for the town of Lefors, not far from where the fire had started. Brown told the other men that he had just driven past the ranch headquarters, which the fire had skirted (partly because the lawns around the homes and the outbuildings were well watered, freshly mowed, and contained no dry grass). He also had driven through the west pasture and through some of the northern pastures, but he hadn’t spotted Cody, Sydney, or Sloan. “I don’t know,” Brown said quietly. “Maybe they went south, to the Gething.”

Evening was coming on. The sun was dropping behind the horizon. Joe, Destry, and Brock piled into a truck and drove the fence line between the Franklin and the Gething. Huddled against a corner fence was Junior. His hair was burned down to the skin and his saddle blanket was smoldering. He was in such pain he couldn’t look up. Brock got out of the truck and jerked the saddle and saddle blanket off the horse. Joe leaned against the pickup and looked at Brock. “We’ve got a wreck on our hands,” he said.

A few of the cowboys spread out in a single line, thirty or forty yards apart, and they started walking through the Gething pasture, using the flashlights on their cellphones to guide their way. The ground was still warm from the fire, the heat seeping up through their boots, but they kept walking. Every few yards or so, they’d do an old-fashioned “brush call”: shouting “woo-woo” to one another so that they knew they were maintaining a straight line. (When working brushy pastures, looking for stray cattle, cowboys on horseback have long used the same call.) As they ascended one of the sand hills, they heard a feeble cry.


It was Cody.

Brock and the others ran up the sand hill. Sydney was on the ground, curled up like a kitten, lifeless. Forty yards away, on his back, was Cody. His clothes had been burned off. The only things remaining on his body were his leather Western belt, his Bustamante boots, and the spurs he’d gotten his senior year of high school.

“Dad, I’m sorry,” Cody said. “I’m sorry.”

“Son, you did nothing wrong,” Brock replied, cradling Cody’s head in his arms.

Cody’s skin was almost black from his burns, his hair gone. He told his father he was cold. Brock stripped off his shirt and wrapped it around his son.

“I’ve come a long way, Dad,” said Cody, who seemed to be getting delirious. “I know, honey,” Brock said. He then called Kristie and said, “You need to get on out here. It’s bad.”

Fifty yards away, one of the other cowboys, 32-year-old Derek Kincannon, found Sloan. He too was naked except for his boots and belt. “Sir, please help me,” Sloan whispered. Kincannon had no idea what to do. He finally held Sloan’s hand and said, “You just keep breathing. Help is on its way.”

By then, Liesl had returned with her mother and the children to their ranch house. Someone called and let them know that Sloan and Cody had been found alive and that medical helicopters were on their way to the Gething to transport the men to a hospital in Amarillo.

More cowboys and volunteer firefighters got to the sand hill in their pickups and grass rigs. They formed a circle with the trucks and turned on their brights so the helicopters would know where to land. When the first helicopter touched down, a paramedic ran over to Sloan. He took one look at him and began reciting the 23rd Psalm. Sloan moved his lips. The paramedic thought he was trying to recite the psalm along with him.

By the time the second helicopter arrived, Kristie and Cody’s two brothers, Clay and Ben, were at his side. Paramedics lifted Cody onto a backboard. “Thank y’all for coming,” Cody said to the paramedics just before they sedated him.

Sloan died before he got to the hospital. Cody died minutes after he was wheeled into the emergency room. Back at the Gething, a justice of the peace arrived to examine Sydney’s body and officially pronounce her cause of death. She was wrapped in a sheet, placed in the backseat of a pickup, and driven to a funeral home in the nearby town of Pampa. Meanwhile, one of Magee’s cowboys went looking for Junior. He shot the horse in the head, putting him out of his misery.

Everyone prepared to go home. In the darkness, some heifers and calves began ambling from the Gething to the open gate that led to the west pasture. It was Sloan’s herd. Incredibly, except for three calves, all of them had escaped the fire—apparently, they had kept moving south away from the flames—and now they were returning to the pasture that they knew best. Against all odds, Cody, Sydney, and Sloan had saved the cattle.

The next morning was chilly but beautiful. The wind was gone, and the skies clear except for a few lingering wisps of smoke. As friends gathered at the Crockett home, Brock went off to feed cattle and patch some fence at his ranch. “That’s what you do out here,” he says. “You get up and do your job.” When he got home that afternoon, he opened a hospital bag and pulled out Cody’s belt, boots, and spurs. He set them on the floor next to his own bed.

All that Liesl got back was Sloan’s cellphone, which, incredibly, was still working (he had carried it in a waterproof and fireproof phone case), and his wedding ring, which had soot on it. Sydney’s mother, Lisa, received Sydney’s Apple Watch and a pair of earrings. Two days after the fire, Lisa drove up to the Panhandle with her husband. Along with Sydney’s father, Stephen Wallace, and his wife, they went to the Gething pasture with Brock and Kristie. At the spot where Sydney had been found, Lisa and Stephen scooped some sand into bottles. “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘How could this have happened?’ ” Lisa says. “Three wonderful young people, taken away by a wild fire. How could such a thing have happened?”

Lisa brought Dale back to her home. At a Methodist church in Round Rock, north of Austin, where Sydney had been baptized as a baby, close to 400 mourners attended her funeral. Propped on top of the casket was a photo of Sydney and Cody. During Sloan’s funeral at Breckenridge’s First Baptist Church, which was attended by more than 750 mourners, a video was played of Sloan singing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” In their eulogies, his friends described him as the finest man they had ever met. His father, Jim, spoke last. “I know the Lord was there with him in that fire,” he said, “and I know that He protected him from the pain, and that He was waiting there to take him with Him into indescribable joy.” For several seconds, there was silence as Jim tried not to sob.

At the One Way Church in McLean (the biggest church in town), more than a thousand people showed up for Cody’s funeral, the crowd so large that it spilled onto the street. The fourteen pallbearers—his two brothers and twelve of his cowboy friends, young men with names such as Cutter and Kaleton—wore their best cowboy boots, starched jeans, starched white button-down shirts adorned with a single carnation, and their cowboy hats. In his message, Pastor Haynes told the crowd, “Cody was doing what he loved to do. . . . A better cowboy you cannot find.” At the end of the service, the saddle that had been on Junior the night of the fire was placed on top of Cody’s casket. There was a procession to the city cemetery, and Cody and his saddle were buried next to the graves of his great-grandparents.

The tragedy reverberated through America’s rural communities. On Facebook pages and websites devoted to farming and ranching, there were countless postings about Sloan’s, Cody’s, and Sydney’s deaths. (“Only the good die young,” someone wrote. “Maybe God needed them to help with ‘the cattle on a thousand hills,’ ” wrote someone else, quoting from the Book of Psalms.) Amy Dean, a grandmother from Colorado, wrote and recorded “Cowboys With Wings,” a song memorializing Sloan, Cody, and Sydney. It was the first song she’d ever released. An Amarillo Christian rock musician, Matt Dietz, recorded a tribute song that he titled “Amarillo Burned.”

People who had never met Sloan, Cody, or Sydney mailed cards and letters to their families. Cowboys from as far away as Waco showed up at the Crockett ranch and asked Brock if he needed any help. Throughout the southern Great Plains, families who were affected by the fires were overwhelmed with donations, receiving everything from bales of hay to covered-dish suppers. Teenagers who belonged to 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America chapters helped with the cleanup. “Some girls from Oklahoma State who were on spring break showed up and asked if they could clean ranch houses,” Magee says. He pauses and shakes his head. “There’s a lot of love among ranching people. But Lord, it can be a tough business. Lord, it can be tough.”

On that single March afternoon, at least 32 fires broke out in the southern Great Plains, scorching more than 1.2 million acres, “the largest individual Plains fire outbreak documented in the modern era,” says Lindley, the National Weather Service meteorologist. The amount of damage totaled tens of millions of dollars. Scattered throughout the pastures were at least a couple of thousand dead cows. Other cows and calves were burned so badly—“staggering around like broken toys,” wrote one reporter—that they were shot and carried by bulldozers to large pits for burial. Besides the deaths in Texas, a 63-year-old Oklahoma woman suffered a fatal heart attack as she and her husband tried to put out a fire that threatened their farm. In Kansas, a trucker suffocated when his semi jackknifed on a highway that was blanketed with smoke.

Ironically, in mid-March, bountiful showers passed over the Panhandle, and by the first of May, carpets of new grass were already sprouting up in the blackened pastures. At the Franklin Ranch, Liesl’s family hosted a steak dinner to honor the cowboys, the volunteer firefighters, and the paramedics who had been at their ranch and at the Gething during the blaze. Everyone tried to make small talk around the tables. A couple of the cowboys began to say how much they were going to miss Sloan, Cody, and Sydney, but they got choked up.

Before the dinner ended, at about 9 p.m.—the cowboys had to get home to bed to be ready for work the next morning—someone asked Liesl about her new baby, due in August. Liesl said she was having a boy.

What are you going to name him? someone else asked.

Well, Liesl said, since Samuel Sloan is already named after his daddy, she wanted to name the baby after a young man she knew who was never going to have kids. A young man whom she deeply admired, she said, who during his life had been earnest and kind and courageous. A young man who deserved some sort of legacy.

There was a silence. “I’m going to call my baby Cody,” she said. # # #

[Walter Ned "Skip" Hollandsworth was reared in Wichita Falls, TX and graduated with a BA (English) from Texas Christian University. He has worked as a reporter and columnist for newspapers in Dallas, and he also has worked as a television producer and documentary filmmaker. Since joining Texas Monthly in 1989, Hollandsworth has received several journalism awards, including a National Headliners Award, the national John Hancock Award for Excellence in Business and Financial Journalism, the City and Regional Magazine gold award for feature writing, the Texas Institute of Letters O. Henry award for magazine writing, and the Charles Green award for outstanding magazine writing in Texas, given by the Headliners club of Austin. He has been a finalist four times for the National Magazine Awards, the magazine industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, and his work has been been included in such publications as Best American Crime Writing and Best American Magazine Writing.]

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