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Life on the Old Llano Seco

(This story is based on events that happened on the Llano Seco Rancho aka the Parrott Grant Ranch in Butte County, sixty summers ago.)

By the time Bruce and I finished getting the grain beds set up on the trucks it was ten to six and we were going to have to hurry to wash up before supper.

As we came around the corner of the truck shed, I saw that most of the men were sitting on the porch benches over at the new bunkhouse, smoking and talking, all washed up and ready to eat. Closer to us, in front of the old bunkhouse, was a black ’46 Dodge, pulled right up on the grass. The door on the driver’s side was open and a few feet away on the lawn a guy in new black overalls was sprawled out on his back.

When we got close I could hear the motor idling and I saw that the guy was still breathing because the buttons on his suspenders were moving a little. Bruce stepped around him and leaned in and shut the motor off, and we walked the rest of the way over to the new bunkhouse.  On the way in Shorty Peters, who was sitting on the bench by the screen door, asked us if the guy was dead.

“He’s breathing,” said Bruce. “Who is he?  One of the men for the harvest?”

“Yeah,” said Shorty. “He and two others came up from Sacramento today.  You should’a seen them other two guys pile outa that car soon as it hit the yard.  Like their tails was on fire. One of ’em said they’d been all day driving up. Said the wino kept wantin’ to stop for booze. They got lost a coupla times too. He wouldn’t let either one of ’em drive. They sure was glad to get here.  Say, we’d better get over to the dining room, they’re gettin’ ready to ring the bell.”

Bruce and I went in and washed up. When we came out they were ringing the bell, and we ran over to the cook shack and caught the door just as it was closing behind the last man.

During supper the two new men sat across from me. They didn’t say anything except to ask people to pass them things, and I didn’t ask any questions. When I was through eating I went outside and saw that the Dodge was still in front of the old bunkhouse. I walked on over until I could see that the door was still open and the wino was still there on his back, and then I went on into the new bunkhouse and Bruce and I took turns playing cooncan with Hog Slim until about nine. Before going to bed, I went outside again and walked over toward the old bunkhouse just far enough to see that the car door was still open but the wino was gone.

About quarter to six the next morning when I went out to sit on the porch, there were four men over on the porch of the old bunkhouse.  One of them was Old Clubfoot, who lived there all the time, even through the winter all by himself when there was plenty of room in the new bunkhouse where there was furnace heating. The others were the wino and the two other new men. The wino was sitting on the porch railing, smoking a cigarette. I couldn’t tell much about him until they got up to walk over to the cook shack, and then I could see he didn’t look too bad off. Then those of us on the porch of the new bunkhouse got up and walked over to the cook shack and when we got there we all had to wait a few minutes before they rang the bell.  The wino was leaning up against one of the porch posts, smoking. He looked to be about fifty. What hair he had was all in front, some black and some gray. His eyes were a light blue, and he’d shaved. His cigarette didn’t sputter so it must have been tailor-made.  Like I said, his overalls were new.

The bell rang and we went in. The wino sat apart from the other two, at another table. I watched him putting the food away.  First, he ate a whole plate of canned grapefruit. Then on the same plate he put a hot cake, on top of that some fried eggs, and then another hot cake on top of that and syrup over the whole thing, and sausage. He drank two cups of coffee with it, and had another plate of grapefruit afterwards. He was the first to finish and took a doughnut with him when he went out.

Bruce and I finished together and went out and had a cigarette on the way back to the bunkhouse. I looked over towards the truck shed and saw the wino moving his car into an empty stall.

I got my water jug out of my room and walked over to the icehouse to fill it. When I came back, most of the men were back on the porch sitting on the benches, smoking, their wet burlapped water jugs sitting by them in puddles on the cement.  Over on the porch of the old bunkhouse the four men were smoking. The wino was sitting on the railing, playing with a slouch hat.

At six-thirty on the nose Old Taylor drove up in his gray weapons carrier and most of the men grabbed their water jugs and walked down the short cement ramp onto the gravel over to where Old Taylor pulled up. The three new men came over from the old bunkhouse; Old Clubfoot wasn’t in the harvest so he stayed where he was on his porch.  So did a few of the men on the new bunkhouse porch. They were all waiting for Mac, the Little Boss, to drive up in his yellow pickup and take them out to their regular ranch jobs.

Old Taylor shut off his motor and stood up in the open cab while everybody gathered around the weapons carrier.  Old Taylor called out names and pointed to people, and those he appointed as catskinners, header tenders, and harvester men pulled themselves up to take seats in the back on both sides of the weapons carrier. All the catskinners and most of the other men knew already what they would be doing, and they climbed up to sit down before Old Taylor got to them. When he was almost done he pointed to the wino and said, “You’re to be a harvester man,” and nodded his head toward the back of the carrier. The wino climbed up and took a seat next to Bruce who was to be a header tender.  Finally Old Taylor pointed to me and two of the other younger guys and said we were truck drivers which we already knew, and we walked to the shed to get our trucks.

Mine was a ’47 International, in good shape, and I started her on the first try and was the first one to get to the gas pump.  I gassed her up and gave her two quarts of oil, and then drove through the yard and out through the southwest gate onto the main interior ranch road and followed the remains of the dust clouds set up by the weapons carrier. On the way to the first field I thought about the wino making $20 a day as harvester man, and me just making $10. Except for the Harvest Boss, harvester man is the highest paid job in the harvest. There are three men on a harvester.  The catskinner drives the caterpillar tractor that pulls the harvester, and gets $12 a day.  The header tender sits above the long spinning header that juts out from the side of the harvester and cuts the barley, and he raises and lowers the header as the ground changes; he gets $10, same as a truck driver. The harvester man is boss of the whole rig. He’s supposed to be able to fix it if it breaks down.  He spends most of his time sitting on top of the harvester right under the hot corrugated metal roof. Every now and then he gets up and moves around and listens to the spinning gears and the augers and looks into the hopper to see how the grain’s coming in and if it’s getting full, and when it’s full he raises the flag above the harvester to signal the bankout wagon driver to come get a load.  It’s hot and dusty and loud as hell up there. Now and then he oils a few chains.  He watches the header sometimes and yells over the racket at the header tender to raise it or lower it. Once in a while he pulls on a long string that runs out to a little bell above the catskinner’s head to get him to stop the tractor, and gets down on the ground to check the header and pull weeds out of it. But most of the time he just sits on top of the harvester and swigs water out of his jug and wipes sweat off his face with a big bandanna. He gets $20.

The first field was way down on the south end of the ranch, about five miles from the yard. The catskinners had parked their rigs down there the afternoon before, and when I pulled in I saw that the bankout wagon was already there too, along with the straddle buggy and the diesel wagon. I went over to Bruce and stood and watched him while he fooled around with the pulleys and chains on his header. He got up on the harvester and turned the crank and practiced raising and dropping the header. The wino had a big oilcan with a squirter and was going around the rig squirting oil on chains and things. When they got done we went over to the road and had a smoke while Old Taylor waited for the dew to dry out of the field.

They cranked all the harvesters up about nine and started out around the outside of the field, each one offset, following the harvester in front of it. I got in the cab of my truck and had another cigarette, holding it down below the seat so Old Taylor wouldn’t see me smoking in the field.

By and by the bankout wagon came over with a load of grain and backed up to my truck and delivered it through its auger.  Just before the grain was about to spill over the sides of my truck, the bankout driver honked his air horn and I drove the truck forward a few feet and he honked again and I stopped. He finished up and cut his auger off and raced off to a harvester across the field who had his flag up, and I took my load of barley back up the ranch road to the yard, through the yard and out the east gate a few hundred yards to where the grain elevators were. I drove up the ramp onto the iron gratings, got out and pulled the levers along the side of the truck bed and the grain fell out the bottom and there was barley dust billowing up all over everywhere. Old Drummond came out of his little office shack with a cigarette in his mouth bent over and coughing from deep down in his chest like he always did and said By God he wished I’d let him see the grain before I dumped it. He wanted to see what the grain looked like.  It didn’t matter because it all got dumped there anyway, but Old Drummond was in charge of the elevators and took himself real seriously. I was the first truck to dump and he wanted to be able to tell the Big Boss at dinner that By God he’d looked real close at the grain when it first came in and that it was good or it was bad or it was green or wet or whatever. I told him there’d be more trucks that morning and he coughed from way down deep and said By God he hoped so, and I drove off the grating around through the yard and out the road back down to the field.

I delivered one more load that morning, just before eleven-thirty, and then parked my truck in the yard. The weapons carrier pulled in soon after with all the men on it, and Bruce and I had a coke in his room before dinner. I asked Bruce about the wino and Bruce said he was pretty good. He said the harvesters were having trouble in a patch of weeds and poison oak, and that Injun Bill’s rig had gotten clogged up with it and had to pull out of the field. Injun Bill was a good harvester man too.  Bruce said the wino had stopped their rig a lot of times to pull stuff out of the header, but that they hadn’t clogged up yet and they were almost out of the poison oak. On the way over to the cook shack I asked Bruce if the wino had puked, and Bruce said he didn’t think so.

That afternoon I delivered four more loads to Old Drummond, and he said each time that By God the stuff was green and that there sure must be a lot of weeds out there. Back in the field, in the heat of the cab I fell asleep waiting for the last load.  In my sleep I heard a big long blat of noise and woke up to see grain pouring down both sides of my cab. I jerked up and started the motor and moved up about six feet and looked out and saw the bankout driver shaking his head and frowning and then Old Taylor came flying out of the field in his weapons carrier, pulling up in front of my truck and jumping out hopping mad, shouting “The first day! The first goddamned day and you can’t stay awake!” And he went on to tell me he’d never seen the likes of it and so on and so forth, but I knew different. The drivers are always falling asleep waiting for loads in the heat, such a long time between loads and nothing to do but sit and sweat in the hot cabs and try to stay awake.  Old Taylor knew that and ordinarily he wouldn’t have made a big deal out of it, but Injun Bill had his rig pulled out of the grain again and Old Taylor knew that the Big Boss would want to know about it at supper. This was only the second time Old Taylor had bossed a harvest, and the talk was that the first time hadn’t been anything he could lean his reputation on.

I didn’t play any cooncan that night because during harvest you work till seven instead of five-thirty, and I was pretty tired.  Next morning, while we were waiting on the cookhouse porch for the bell to ring, I heard Old Clubfoot say he’d been hit up by the wino for three singles the night before. He said that the wino and one of the other two new men had gone into town and had come back about eleven o’clock. Somebody asked him how the wino had been when he’d come back from town and Old Club said he’d been quiet and had acted perfectly natural. About then we saw the wino walking over from the old bunkhouse, and Old Club stopped talking before he got close.

That day about two o’clock, the wino’s rig broke down for the first time.  He pulled out of the grain just as I was heading back to the elevators with a load. When I got back down to the field he was still there, still broke down. The bankout was filling me up with another load when Old Taylor and the wino came driving over in the weapons carrier. The wino had some kind of a harvester part in his hands.

Old Taylor said for me to drop the wino off at the shop on my way through the yard, and to pick him up on the way back. The wino climbed in on the other side of the cab, and we drove out of the field.

Neither of us said anything for awhile, until the wino finally said that he’d just had a pretty bad scare.

“How do you mean?” I asked him.

He held up two pieces of metal which apparently had been one. “Well, you see this here part? This here part’s from the part of the harvester that picks up the grain and straw from the conveyor coming in off the header. Well, when the harvester froze up—and that’s just what she did, she just froze up tight—I stopped her and got down and looked along the header until I come to the auger that takes everything off the conveyor and pulls it into the harvester and hanging down from out of the auger is the biggest set of snake rattles that you ever saw in all your days. Well, I jumped back pretty quick, I tell you, but then I could see they weren’t moving, but I still wasn’t too sure, so I waited awhile before I did anything more. Then I tried pulling on the main pulley, but nothing moved.  I tried pulling on the snake’s tail, but everything was still all jammed up.  Finally, with the header man and the catskinner both pulling on the pulley and me pulling on the snake’s tail, we got him out.  But he broke this part in two going in.”

I asked him about the snake’s head, but he said he didn’t find anything left above the part of the snake’s tail that had been hanging out of the auger.

I let him out at the shop and picked him up on the way back. He’d gotten a new part from the shop, and said he’d have the harvester up and going in no time, soon as we got back to the field.

I’d noticed that his hands had little white spots on them, and I asked him what they were. Ordinarily you don’t ask questions like that, but I was beginning to figure that the wino wasn’t the kind who would mind.

“These?  Oh kid, these is wine sores.  Ain’t you ever seen wine sores before?”

I allowed as how I hadn’t.

I dropped him off in the field at his harvester and that was the last I saw of him.

He wasn’t at supper that night and Bruce told me he’d seen him drive out the main ranch road right after Old Taylor brought them all in from the field.

The next morning he wasn’t at breakfast either. Bruce and I sat next to Harlan, the bookkeeper, and Harlan told us that the wino had driven in that morning just after dawn and woke him up pounding on the office door and hollering. When Harlan came out from his room in the back and opened the door, the wino stormed in and demanded his pay:

“Give me my time, goddamn it!”

So Harlan said that he made him out a company check for his two days and the wino drove out of the yard, gravel flying.

(Jim Luther is a retired Mendocino County Superior Court judge who lives in Mendocino.)


  1. Jim Armstrong December 14, 2017

    I read at least the first several paragraphs of this story quite recently.
    Can somebody tell me where?

    • Eric Sunswheat December 14, 2017

      Jim, you probably read it about two weeks ago on the daily AVA blog Mendocino County Today.

      • Jim Armstrong December 14, 2017

        Thanks, I figured it must be.

  2. james marmon December 14, 2017

    Judge Luther is the greatest man I’ve ever met. He saved my life.

    • Eric Sunswheat December 14, 2017

      Yes Judge Luther did me a big favor in early days of being fair minded, telling the prosecution to go look at the law books and come back that afternoon to dismiss. Later on he became seemingly jaded and more of a cog in a cynical system of dispensation. Fortunately I avoided the end game and he retired.

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