Newt Keen has a gap-toothed grin. That is where the bullet went.
Minutes before he was shot, a man had sapped him. Newt Keen was bending over his bathtub adjusting the water when the sap hit him. It staggered him. For a moment, the bathroom light grew a halo as big as a skillet. Newt Keen stumbled. He turned. The man, obviously a Yankee, sapped him again.
Newt Keen turned some more. The Yankee stood in the bathroom doorway. He looked like he topped 190 pounds. Newt Keen weighs 170 carrying his saddle. The Yankee stood 6-foot-2. Newt Keen might nudge six feet in his boots. The Yankee’s hands hung to his knees. He wore a gray ski mask. “Woolly booger!” Newt Keen thought. “I’m going to make a run for it and go by him.” But the Yankee grabbed him. They tangled. They wrestled out of the bathroom, around a corner and into a bedroom. Newt Keen tore off the ski mask. The Yankee pulled a pistol. He shot Newt Keen squarely in the mouth.
The bullet knocked out two of Newt Keen’s front teeth on top and three on the bottom. Fragments of lead sprayed into his gums. Some lodged under his lips. Others flew down his throat. One slammed straight back into his neck. Newt Keen toppled. He sat down hard on a clothes hamper. He struggled to his feet, spitting blood. He pulled a pistol of his own out of a hip pocket. Newt Keen heard the Yankee clatter down the back stairs and out into the dark. He shot at the sound. He missed. The Yankee ran headlong into the clothesline and ripped one post out of the ground. He untangled himself and ran on.
There was silence.
“Dadgum,” Newt Keen muttered. “He shot me.”
He bled, and he hurt. He walked to a neighbor’s. The neighbor called the sheriff. Newt Keen bummed a cigarette.
The sheriff drove him to a hospital, 32 miles away. There seemed to be so many pieces of bullet that a doctor said it must have been a .38-caliber--maybe even a .45. The doctor removed as many of the fragments as he could. But it seemed wiser to leave the one at the back of Newt Keen’s neck. It was too close to his spine to risk surgery. He carries it still. He also carries one in his trachea. It is tucked up next to his larynx. Other fragments have worked their way out. Every now and then, one eases up through his gums. It is usually flat, sharp, shiny and paper-thin. When that happens, he pours himself a little drink of vodka--just one, but a pretty good-sized little drink--and he asks someone to get some tweezers or a couple of toothpicks and to please pull it out. “When you get it good and taut,” he says, through the gap-toothed grin, “don’t fiddle around. Jerk quick, y’know.”
Newt Keen was in his 60s when all this happened. Now he is 73. He is white-haired, weather-beaten, jug-eared and rail-skinny. His belt buckle rides a little low, under the early shadow of a paunch. “When I first come here, the sun wasn’t no bigger than an orange,” he says, trying to swallow a chuckle. He dips some snuff--Copenhagen, his brand for 55 years. “Wasn’t no moon a-tall.” He spits. “Windmills was only this big.” He holds one hand knee-high. With that, he cannot help himself: He laughs. He leans against an aging, stainless-steel beer cooler and props a scuffed boot against the edge of the counter in this, the single eatery in Mentone, Tex., the only town between here and nightfall. “Be right with ya, pardner!” Both boots back on the floor, he shuffles out to the kitchen to hustle a hamburger. He sold this cafe a while back to a daughter, Ann, and her husband. But he still cooks. And he cowboys. He works cattle off and on for a friend. Newt Keen likes to laugh and say, “Yeah, boy!” It has four syllables. But he is not a man to trifle with. He is rarely fooled. He knows in his bones that the man who shot him was not from these parts. He could tell by the way he acted. “Had to be a damn Yankee,” he says. And when that particular Yankee was running pell-mell out through Newt Keen’s back yard, it is significant that he was fleeing empty-handed--and that Newt Keen still had every nickel in his pocket of the $900 he had brought home from the cafe that night.
Newt Keen is tough, but not like some hothead. He is a stronger kind of tough, like good leather. So is most everyone around here. This is West Texas. Not much comes easily here--not even a drink of water. But its people are courageous and stubborn. In this winter of shrinking expectations, at a time when more than an occasional American wonders about the country’s inner strength, this is a place to notice. The people are straightforward, independent, blessed with cussedness and the capacity to laugh, even at themselves. They are Plains people: resourceful, durable, bravely persevering. They have, in a word, grit.
MENTONE IS IN LOVING COUNTY. AND LOVING COUNTY IS AMERICA STRIPPED bare. It is in far West Texas, tucked up under New Mexico. It is the emptiest county in the contiguous United States. By federal count, it has 107 people. The state says 109. They are spread over 664 square miles. That comes to more than six square miles per person. New York City, by contrast, has 23,705 people per square mile. And even a population count of 107 is probably too generous. Mary Belle Jones, 62, the county tax assessor-collector for seven years, who also happens to be the wife of Punk Jones, 65, who was the sheriff for 28 years, figures that 107 must include people who live here only part of the time. “You can pretty well count the ones who really live here,” she says. “Let me see: There is John Haley . . . and Alan and Sandra . . . Tom . . . Karen . . . Billy and Ann and Edna . . . " Her total comes to barely 90. Only 18 live in Mentone, which is the only town in the county. The rest live on ranches and in house trailers to the east. Mentone is so empty one can stand in the middle and see it all--a gas station, a post office, a courthouse, a white clapboard church, an empty school building, a handful of houses and Newt’s cafe.
Beyond that, in every direction, are the plains. In the daytime, the sky is God-high and pale blue. The land is flat, and the horizon is broken only by puffy clouds. In the middle distance stands a windmill, in another direction a microwave tower, in another a pump jack, bobbing like a big bird on top of an oil well. At night, the sky cries stars. The air is sweet and warm. Jackrabbits scurry through the grama grass, under the mesquite and around the cat-claw. A coyote howls. Otherwise the quiet is epic. In the summer, the silence is freighted with heat--115 degrees in the hard eye of the sun. The heat brings sandstorms. “They come up in 10 minutes,” Newt Keen says. “One thing you don’t do here is predict the weather, unless you’re a newcomer or a damn fool.” Blowing sand burns faces and peels the paint from cars. “Blew so hard once,” Newt Keen allows, swallowing another grin, “that I saw a downwind chicken lay the same egg three times.” Then comes hail. And finally, if everyone is right with the Lord, there comes the blessing of rain. It starts as streaks from clouds in the distance. Then the air smells like damp greasewood. Little eddies of dust begin to blow, and finally the raindrops fall--hard and wet and cool. In the winter, the shimmying heat turns to snarling cold. “There ain’t nothin’ between us and the North Pole,” Newt Keen points out, “but barbed-wire fences.” Cattle freeze. Men freeze. Even running water, moving through pipes to rigs in the oil field, freezes--solid. All the while, the wind rattles bones and mocks the soul. “People go crazy in the wind,” Newt Keen says, not entirely joking. “Especially when the moon is a-shinin’. And some people, y’know, they only got about so far to go.” Most people, confronted by the land and the space and the weather, are simply awe-struck. “One ol’ boy come down from East Texas one time,” Newt Keen says, “and he wrote back, and he said: ‘Well, all that I know is that there’s more wind and less rain, more cows and less milk, and you can see farther and see less than in any other place I ever heard of.’ ”
Indeed, Loving County is a good place to test for mettle because of what it does not have. The county has no doctor, no dentist, no ambulance, no pharmacy, no nurses, no fire department, no paramedics. From Mentone, it is 28 miles to Pecos, the closest town. It lies to the south and a little to the east and is the seat of Reeves County. Next closest is Kermit, 32 miles to the east. It is the seat of Winkler County. The injured or ill in Loving County usually do without professional emergency aid. Buildings that catch fire usually burn down--as did Newt Keen’s house several months ago. Cities larger than Kermit or Pecos--say Odessa--are at least 75 miles away. “We’ll drive for 50 miles to get a cup of coffee out here,” says Skipper Martin, 52, an oil-field pumping contractor who frequents Newt’s place. Loving County has 100 miles of roads, but it has no stoplights. Apart from a few streets around the courthouse in Mentone, only one road in the entire county is paved. The rest are dirt--cut into the caliche clay. “It gets pretty boggy,” Newt Keen says. He rolls the word around: bah-aw-gy. “One time I was goin’ along the bank of the Pecos River, and I seen a brand new hat a-layin’ there, and I thought, ‘Boy, howdy! That’s just what I need.’ But just as I went to pick it up, a voice says, ‘Hey, leave my hat alone!’ And there, underneath it, was an ol’ boy, sunk down to his ears.” Pause. “And under him was the mule he was ridin’.”
Loving County has no grocery store, no bank, no movies. It has no cemetery. There are four graves. One holds a homesteader. Another holds a cattleman. The other two contain cowboys. One of them was thrown by his horse. His boot caught in a stirrup, and the horse dragged him for a mile. He was buried where he died. The other cowboy got sick and knew he was dying. He planned his own funeral. At the end of the service, in accordance with his wishes, his horse was unsaddled, unbridled and whacked on the rump--to run free and never to be ridden again. The county has no hotel, no newspaper, no civic club. It has no school. In the 1940s, it had 12 grades. McKinley Hopper, 70, graduated from Mentone High School. “Seventy-five percent of the graduates went to college,” he says, “and not one of them ever flunked out.” Now Loving County has little more than two dozen school-aged children. It buses them to Winkler County. The youngsters leave before sunup. Many do not get home until after dark. Some sleep on the bus.
There are no beauticians, no barbers, no lawyers and no full-time jurist. The courthouse has a courtroom. A judge from the 143rd Judicial District in Winkler County comes from time to time to preside. But Loving County has only nine civil proceedings on file. There are no criminal cases. In fact, says Juanita Busby, 51, the county clerk since 1987, “we have had no criminal cases since I’ve been in office.” Cases headed for a jury, she says, are transferred out. “Try to get a jury out of Loving County!” says John Haley, 66, who has served as a jury commissioner. “Everybody knows everybody.” Impartiality is impossible. So is getting on a plane. Or a train. Or hooking up to utilities. People buy propane and use septic tanks. Water is hard to find. “The need for more rain in West Texas,” John Haley says, “probably arose six months after Noah ran his boat aground on Mt. Ararat.” The Pecos River is green and brown--heavy with salt, alkali, arsenic and assorted other pollutants from upstream in New Mexico. “Did you get down and get you a little sip of it?” Newt Keen asks, slyly. “A little bird flew over it and died of dysentery.” A few ranches have wells that begrudge a drinkable trickle. But most have water filled with gypsum, used for making plaster of Paris. “So damn hard,” says Edna Dewees, 71, who has lived here since the 1940s, “it would kill you if you dove into it.” Several years ago, the county began piping water from a well on the nearby Slash Ranch into a large tank at the edge of Mentone. “Beautiful water,” Juanita Busby says. “Delicious.” People filled up at the tank and paid the county 15 cents a barrel, on the honor system. Then the well went dry. Now the county fills the tank by truck from another well. Some people drink the water. Others do not. “Makes you hurt in the belly,” Newt Keen says. Many haul their water from Pecos.
Worst of all, Loving County is slowly running out of money. In 1979, oil and gas production gave the county $518 million in assessments. “Production has depleted since,” says Mary Belle Jones, whose job has been to assess production and collect taxes. “Our valuation has dropped each year, little by little, until in 1991 it was at $212 million.” J.W. Busby, 51, who is Juanita’s husband and who took over the tax appraising from Mary Belle Jones this year, says taxes are going up but the county budget will stay the same. “Trouble is, a gas well goes dead overnight,” he says, “and it doesn’t take many of those to knock a hole in you.”
It is noteworthy that few people in Loving County ever complain. For one thing, no bank means no bank robbers; few cars mean no traffic jams. Loving County has no gangs, no unemployment, no homelessness, nobody on welfare. The only public debt, says Clay Huelster, 42, the county auditor, was $27,000 owed on a new road grader. It was paid off in mid-January. There is a larger reason, however, for the absence of discontent, says Don Creager, 57, a rotund, soft-spoken man who has been presiding judge for 19 years of the county court of commissioners--an archaically misnamed board of supervisors. “We are a very proud people,” Don Creager declares. Moreover, he says, this pride is neither conceit nor arrogant inattention to hardship. It is self-respect, he says, born of independence and self-reliance. “We had a commodity program at one time,” he notes. “And we had a family or two that were recipients. But just as soon as they could get to where they were financially able, they got off of it.” During all the years of federal revenue sharing, he adds, Loving County tried to return its government checks. “Washington wouldn’t let us,” Clay Huelster says. “So we socked the money up.” Every check went into a bank unspent, first in Midland, then over in Kermit. “We never considered it income,” Don Creager says, “and we never got dependent on it.” Only when revenue sharing ended, and there seemed to be no possibility that Washington could ever attach strings, did Loving County use the money. Part of it, Clay Huelster says, with a wry look, built the pipeline to carry water from the well that eventually went dry.
TELLINGLY, THIS PLACE IS NAMED AFTER A MAN WHO REFUSED TO DIE WITHOUT setting conditions. Oliver Loving he was called. He was a rancher. He had a partner, Charles Goodnight. “A rough, tough, chewing and spitting old codger,” says a published description. They drove cattle on what became known as the Loving-Goodnight Trail. It crossed West Texas. In 1867, Oliver Loving was shot by Comanches. Then he was scalped, according to one story. He crawled for miles, chewing on an old leather glove for moisture. He came upon a wandering bunch of Mexican traders. He gave them everything he had--about $250--for their promise that he would be packed in charcoal and taken east to Weatherford, Tex., near Ft. Worth, for burial. Only then did he consent to being carried to the nearest doctor, at Ft. Sumner in New Mexico. One of his arms had rotted with gangrene. The doctor sawed it off at the shoulder. And Oliver Loving died of shock. True to his wishes, Charles Goodnight packed him in charcoal--an absorbent that lessened his stink. Then he hauled him back to Weatherford, where he is buried not far from town.
The Butterfield Stage brought more ranchers. Then it brought promoters, who had in mind irrigating the place. In 1893, with a petition of 150 signatures--several apparently forged--they established Loving County. A surveyor, who happened to be from Menton, France, laid out a town. In a fit of homesickness, he called the place Mentone. County officials--by one account, the sheriff and the county attorney and the tax assessor--absconded with the treasury. They were caught at the Pecos River. Retribution was swift: Word got back that two bodies were recovered, but the third was never found. Down at Austin, state officials did not look kindly upon such things; and, in 1897, Texas legislated Loving County out of existence. Ranches multiplied nonetheless and grew. Cattlemen survived a drought in 1910 and a blizzard in 1918. Mentone died--but another town, Porterville, was born not far away. And then came a discovery: oil. The area boomed. People started still another town--present-day Mentone, named after its predecessor to the north--and, in time, Porterville died. In 1931, amid growing prosperity, Loving County was re-established. Its population peaked at anywhere between 600 and 3,000--depending on who was counting. But boom turned to bust. Then, in the mid-1970s, the land belched forth a new beneficence: gas. This time, some of the wealth stuck. And patches of it linger. Two years ago, a ranch in Loving County with 191 proven oil wells and 17 proven gas wells sold for a reported $85 million. In fact, Loving County has one of the heftiest per-capita incomes anywhere: $25,578. That contrasts with $16,149 in Los Angeles County. But not everyone is rich. “You divide our income by the 100 people or so that we have,” Don Creager says, “and you come up with quite a value. And then you throw in the two or three millionaires.”
One of them was James Wheat, a man Oliver Loving would have appreciated. He parked his Rolls-Royces--both of them--right up next to the pickup trucks at Newt Keen’s place. His daddy was James J. Wheat, one of the men who had discovered oil. During the gas boom, young James came into some of these new riches as well. He grew wealthy, and he got elected to the county court of commissioners at 41. A short man, he wore cowboy boots with two-inch heels. He was a smart dresser and a gentleman. “He always stood up if a woman came into the room, always took off his hat,” Edna Dewees says. His manners, however, fooled nobody. “He was opinionated, and he was a scamp,” she says. “He could cuss. Whew! He didn’t care. He didn’t care who heard him or anything else. He just flat didn’t give a damn.” Independence was James Wheat’s hallmark. Whatever he could not abide he simply did not abide. “You can tell a man,” says Edna Dewees, approvingly, “by the way he balks.”
One thing James Wheat could not abide was misbehavior. Years ago, after a party around the swimming pool at his ranch, for instance, he did not approve of the way some of the party-goers had acted. So he had the pool bulldozed--cabanas, deck chairs and all. “Covered it up,” Edna Dewees says. Juanita Busby adds, “Right up to the tiles on top.” Edna Dewees says it happened this way: “He got this bulldozer operator, and he refused to do it. So old Jim, he went in and got some Scotch and got himself and that bulldozer operator about half drunk, and he got it done.” Legend has it that James Wheat misplaced his cigarette lighter in the process--and losing the lighter was his only regret.
Then there was the matter of his cars. He bought his first Rolls-Royce with his oil and gas money. By then he had built a second home. It was over in Kermit. Every day he put Alex, his Siberian husky, next to him on the front seat of the Rolls-Royce and drove from Kermit out to his ranch in Loving County. Everywhere he went in his new car, the dog went with him. One of its license plates read: “Alex.”
One day, Don Creager visited James Wheat at the ranch. Don Creager recalls: “Jim said, ‘Let’s go riding in this thing.’
“And I said, ‘Well, OK.’
“So I got in the car with him, and we started over these terrible, terrible ranch roads. We’re not talking about graded roads. We’re talking about just trails, with this new Rolls-Royce. And he wanted me to drive. And gosh, I was trying to go very easy. And he said, ‘Oh, come on! Goddamn! If this thing can’t take it, I don’t want it.’ ”
As the weeks went by, it became clear that the car, in fact, could not take it.
James Wheat returned it to the dealer and got another Rolls-Royce. “He had a lot of trouble with it, too,” Don Creager says. “Probably for that reason: driving it over these ranch roads.”
Edna Dewees says: “He got real, real mad.”
One day Charles Kuralt, the roving CBS-TV reporter, showed up. By now James Wheat had returned his second Rolls and paid cash for three Mercedes-Benzes--one for himself, one for his wife and one for his daughter.
“But you had Rolls-Royces!” Kuralt said, incredulously.
“Yeah, and they ain’t worth a damn,” James Wheat replied. “Sorriest cars ever made.”
“I’ve switched,” James Wheat said. “To Mercedes. And they’re the best, I’ll guarantee. I just drive the hell out of ‘em. And they just keep a-going. Mine average about 19 miles to a gallon at 100 m.p.h. And, by gosh, them Rolls-Royces, they just tear up. Every two weeks I’d have to take it down and get something done to it.” James Wheat paused. “Besides,” he added, “my dog didn’t like the damn things.”
Finally, there was the day of the killing.
It happened at night, actually: 11:20 p.m., on July 29, 1974. A truck driver, Donald D. Montgomery, 30, was hauling water to a drilling rig on the Wheat ranch--and another of the things James Wheat could not abide was sloppiness. Montgomery loaded his water near the ranch house, Don Creager says, and stopped in for a few drinks--"how many, I don’t know.” An argument developed, Don Creager says. “Jim was upset about some of the truckers, how’d they’d been leaving messes and letting the water run. So they got into an argument, and Jim said he (Donald Montgomery) tried to rob him, and so he had a shotgun there, and he shot him.
“Or shot at him--then as he was going out the door, he finally shot and hit him. And then he shot him again after he got outside.”
Because James Wheat was rich and a member of the county commission and clearly a man not to be taken lightly, most people to this day are afraid to have their names mentioned along with any other details about the matter. But one privy person, in return for anonymity, says: “Montgomery crawled across the yard holding his insides in. And he made it as far as Wheat’s pickup truck. He got into the pickup and tried to drive it away, and he ran into a tree and died.”
Punk Jones, who was the sheriff, will neither confirm nor deny these details. It is a matter of record, however, that he deputized some extra lawmen from Pecos and drove out to the ranch and arrested James Wheat. Was it Punk Jones’ biggest case? “The stickiest,” he says, with circumspection. “Jimmy Wheat was a county commissioner, keep in mind, at the time; and he was a friend of mine.”
A grand jury was called. J.H. Starley, the 143rd Judicial District judge at the time, asked for a 20-member panel. But the four jury commissioners had to include themselves to come up with 18 grand jurors. They could not find anyone else who either did not work for the county or was not related to someone who did--or who was neither a sworn enemy of James Wheat nor a close friend.
The grand jury indicted James Wheat. It charged him with first-degree murder, to wit: “intentionally and knowingly causing the death of an individual, Donald Montgomery, by shooting him with a shotgun against the peace and dignity of the state.”
James Wheat asked for a change of venue. It was granted. His case went to Lubbock, five counties away. There he pleaded no contest.
He was placed on 10 years’ probation, and after two years he asked that his plea be withdrawn--and that the court dismiss his indictment and discharge him from all penalties and disabilities resulting from his offense.
James Wheat’s request was granted.
“He was the only man,” says another person in Loving County who would rather remain anonymous, “that could shoot somebody and walk.”
At no time was James Wheat required to step down as county commissioner. In fact, he was reelected several times. When he died in 1989 at the age of 72, he was still in office.
THE BULLET BETWEEN HIS TEETH WAS nothing. Newt Keen had endured worse: A rattlesnake in his bedroll, for instance.
He was born 100 miles west of Ft. Worth and grew up along the Chisholm Trail. He could still see signs of it when he was a kid, where cowboys had scratched their names into the rocks. He quit school when he was 13. “Graduated,” he says, winking like a jailbird with the keys. He started breaking horses when he was 17--more than 55 of them for one outfit, for $5 to $10 a head. Then he went to work at the Matador Ranch, a bigger outfit, where he broke horses for $115 a month. “You wool ‘em a lot. You know, wool ‘em and psych ‘em out. Then go to stake with ‘em. Stake ‘em out on a 30-foot rope with a halter--hackamore. Saddle ‘em. Make ‘em respect you. Nine saddles is what they called a broke horse then. Ride ‘em, say, three times in the bronc pen--you know, big round corral--and then you go outside with ‘em, ride ‘em six more times, maybe 20 minutes apiece, and stay in the saddle. Cowboy broke. We’d take ‘em to the wagon then, to the hands, you know, and they went to usin’ ‘em.”
Were they really broke?
“Well, we had ‘em bent pretty good.”
Newt Keen worked for the Waggoner Ranch; it had 200 horses and ran cattle over half a million acres. He worked for the Four Sixes. He worked for the Dixie. He worked all the way from Dalhart to Presidio. He handled horses, cattle, goats. There was a time he could bleed, skin and quarter a beef in nine minutes. That was when good beans sold for $2 a hundred pounds and they made the wheels on Eclipse windmills out of wood and a good dog was worth more than a man. Sometimes, he figures, that is still true.
When he turned 49, he went into the cafe business. Under his apron is a white and tan shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons and a Western yoke. His pants are blue denims. He still wears a dusty black hat with an easy curl. His cafe is white with a brown roof and red trim on two big windows, one on each side of the front door. There is a pay phone at one corner, the only public telephone in town. Under it is a bench where people sit when they use it. The windows have red and white checked curtains. The floor is wood. So is the counter, shellacked to a hard shine. In front of the counter are tables and chairs. Behind it stands the beer case: $1.50 a bottle. On the wall hangs a sign that says: “State law prescribes a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and a fine not to exceed $5,000 for carrying weapons where alcoholic beverages are sold.” A red door with a horseshoe over it goes to the kitchen. At the left end of the counter is a garbage can, where Newt Keen spits his snuff. It is a clean, friendly place, safer than the old Blue Lantern over at Monahans, two towns away. “They used to stop you at the door over there and ask you if you had a gun or a knife,” Newt Keen says. “And if you didn’t, they gave you one.”
Every now and then at Newt’s place, it becomes difficult to pay the tab.
“Gotcha covered,” he says.
“Hell, no, Newt! You got it last time!”
But there is no changing his mind. Skipper Martin, the oil-field pumper, who almost always drops in on his way through Mentone, says: “I tell you, if you count up just the coffee that he’s given me, I probably owe him $100. I’ve been in here when somebody’s stopped and didn’t have no money to eat or anything, and Newt would feed them, and the rest of us would start to pay for it, and Newt wouldn’t let us.”
Along the way, Newt Keen has raised five children. The youngest, he says, carried snuff in his diaper. He has raised 10 grandchildren, one of them a national champion bull rider. And he has helped raise seven step-grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, one a winner of beauty pageants. A few years ago, paperwork at the cafe started to frustrate him, so he decided to go back to working cattle. He sold the place to daughter Ann Hogue, 50, and her husband, Glen, 56. For 14 months, Newt Keen rode fence and checked waterings for a fellow who has 200 longhorns up on the old Brunson Ranch to the north. But then he started missing people. Now he rides the Brunson off and on and is back at the cafe, working for Ann, cooking beans and baking biscuits and dispensing wisdom. “Watch the traffic, sweetie,” he tells a customer as she leaves. Not a car has passed in seven or eight minutes.
In his three quarters of a century, he has encountered a lot. As a youngster learning to walk, he fell into a pot of boiling beans. He was saved by a neighbor, who applied a poultice of fresh cow dung and sweet milk. Women have left him. Two were wives. One departed after 33 years; the other after eight years, six months and five days. When his house burned down, the flames spared only his spurs, a new skinning knife, his .22 pistol, a shotgun and a Bible--and only because they happened to be in his pickup truck. He has been robbed once--of his saddle, his blanket and his rope. And he has been gypped twice--the first time when he leased 60 square miles of land from a woman who, it turned out, owned only 15 of them; and the second time when a Yankee from California gave him a $7,800 check for 525 head of goats. The check bounced.
But nothing--absolutely nothing--tested Newt Keen’s mettle, and for that matter the mettle of Loving County, quite like what Punk Jones did.
Punk Jones had been sheriff for six years when it happened. He had gotten his name because he was a chubby baby, his wife says, and his father called him his “fat little punkin’.” With five older brothers, it got shortened to Punk. He is said to be less than fond of the name; but at the same time he is reported to dislike his real name, Elgin, even more. So Punk it is. Punk Jones did not run for reelection last November. Some say he made too many enemies. But he says simply: “I think it was time.” Punk Jones and Don Creager run cattle together on the old Johnson ranch. “Before I became sheriff,” Punk Jones says, “I was a cowboy.” He wears boots and a white shirt, with the top button open. He favors a vest, blue jeans and a light tan, sweat-stained hat. His hair is silver and his eyes gray-blue. While he was sheriff, he pinned a badge to the left pocket of his shirt. Usually he carried a gun on his hip. Sometimes, he says, he concealed it.
This is how he says he approached people who looked suspicious: “Always with a loaded shotgun in my hands. Or I got a backup. That’s the best way. I’d have my backup stand behind me with a loaded shotgun in his hands.”
Not that there is a large criminal element in Loving County.
There never has been. Edna Dewees was the sheriff from 1945 to 1947. “We just had some brawls,” she says. Her most exciting case was the theft of a bus driver’s jacket and his billfold. Whereupon Edna Dewees took her badge out of a desk drawer, got into the family car, found the culprit and recovered the jacket with the wallet intact. Nor is there much crime now. Wanema Hopper, 65, sitting in a rocking chair at the Mentone gasoline station, runs the place for Mattie Thorp, an in-law aunt who is recovering from surgery. Wanema Hopper and Mattie Thorp let people buy gas on their signatures. Everyone settles up at the end of the month. In the days before there was a pay phone over at Newt’s place, Wanema Hopper says, “most of the tool pushers and other oil people had keys to this place. They came in and used the phone all during the night when they’d be drilling. Never bothered a thing. Sold gas for me. Took the money and gave it to me. I never lock my house. At night I sometimes lock the screens and the doors. But never during the day if I’m gone. Don’t lock my car. Keys are in it.”
The stakes, of course, are not high. Who would risk jail, Mary Belle Jones asks, for what little cash Wanema Hopper keeps on hand? But, interestingly, there is more to it than that. “Mattie will be 88 on her birthday,” Mary Belle Jones says, “and until just recently she ran that place single-handed. She is not even five feet tall, but I would hate to see anybody try to rob her. She’d beat the heck out of them.”
Loving County is not crime free. There are burglaries now and then--by people from Ft. Worth and San Antonio. All have been caught. There is some oil-field stealing--a truckload of another man’s oil, or maybe his steel cable. “We have some drug drops here in the county from time to time,” Punk Jones says. “What goes on is that somebody will deliver it from Pecos out here to these young people. But that stuff is really--it’s kind of a piddling amount.” He can remember only two drug arrests.
In truth, Punk Jones and his deputy have not locked anybody up in their single-cell, double-bunk jail since 1989.
“People here,” Punk Jones says, “don’t need much sheriffing.”
So it is that some folks think Punk Jones simply did not have enough to do when he started reporting Newt Keen to the state liquor control board. “Just little nitshit stuff,” Newt Keen says. “Like runnin’ late, maybe ‘til 1 o’clock, just with a few people here, more like at home than anything. Like Edna and her husband, George, maybe 10 people, you know, real local. Get to shootin’ the bull. Nobody drunk. Just, you know, havin’ a few beers after hours. And he turned me in to the liquor man.”
The liquor man drove out from Pecos. “And he gave me a hard time. For stayin’ open too late.”
It happened a dozen times.
And then things escalated. One day in August of 1971, a state liquor agent was dispatched from the district office in Odessa. A writer, Larry L. King, who would later go on to fame and fortune for his Broadway play, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” happened to be paying Newt Keen a visit at the time. And Larry L. King happened to have along a friend, Warren Burnett, a Texas lawyer of some renown.
“On this boiling day,” Larry L. King later wrote for Life magazine, “Weepin’ Willie Nelson is warning on Newt Keen’s jukebox of all the gratuitous troubles love provides when another kind of trouble--wearing a big-brimmed hat and a snub-nosed pistol--clatters through the front screen door. Granville Lacy, ruddy-faced to the bone, is toting the snub-nosed pistol under the aegis of the Texas liquor control board . . . Newt, on spotting the lawman, mumbles, ‘Oh, hail far! It’s liable to get a whole lot drier around here.’
“ ‘Mr. Keen,’ the lawman says, ‘I’ve got some papers to serve on you.’ Conveniently deaf, Newt gestures toward the coffee he’s poured Lacy: ‘You want me to cripple that with a little dab of cream? It looks like it was dredged up from the Pecos River bottom.’
“A head shake. . . . The liquor agent unfurls and crackles his official documents: ‘Now, Mr. Keen, this temporary suspension begins next Monday.’ ”
Suspended! His liquor license shut down. Dry--for seven days, by Larry L. King’s count; 10 days, by Newt Keen’s, although he allows that it could have been seven and just seemed like 10. He was selling 50 cases of beer a week. This amounted to depriving every man, woman and child in Loving County of 11 bottles each. “Poisoning the water hole!” raged Warren Burnett, the visiting lawyer. He offered to represent Newt Keen for free.
Discretion being the better part of valor, Newt Keen signed the suspension.
Besides, he says, it was not just a matter of staying open too late. This time Punk Jones had accused him of being drunk on duty. And it was true. “I was drinkin’ nearly as much as I was a-sellin'--and business wasn’t too bad.”
Even Granville Lacy, however, did not seem to have his heart entirely in what he was doing. “Me ‘n Lacy sat here and finally had some coffee,” Newt Keen remembers, “And he said, ‘Take this suspension order on over there.’ He pointed at the courthouse. ‘Punk put ‘Drunk On Duty’ on here. Don’t have him say that. That don’t look good. Have him put ‘intoxicated.’ ”
Granville Lacy left, but Newt Keen did not take his suggestion. “I don’t guess Punk could’ve spelled it, do you?”
Instead, Newt Keen ran against Punk Jones for sheriff.
It was a campaign that ranked with some of the finer feuds in Loving County. There have been several. Most have started or ended up in politics. The fact gets reflected in voter turnout. “Sometimes,” Don Creager says, “it’s 110%.” Of the 107 or 109 people in Loving County, 116 voted last November. But everyone is quick to assert that the election was entirely legal. The extra voters, they say, were people like George Bush, who rarely, if ever, live where they vote. “Yeah, boy!” Newt Keen says. “On Election Day, there was this ol’ boy a-sitting out there on the bench by the pay phone, and he was cryin’. And somebody askt him, ‘Did you hurt yourself?’ And he said, ‘No, no, it’s my daddy--he’s been dead for 20 years, and he went and voted--and he didn’t even stop by to say hello.’ ”
These feuds are hardly ever over national or state issues--and never along party lines. They are always over local matters. There have been fistfights, outright free-for-alls. The Texas Rangers have been called in during elections to keep the peace. Afterward, the results have been contested. “Most of the time,” recalls McKinley Hopper, who once served on the county commission, “our votes have been counted in the court of appeals in El Paso.”
And the differences rarely stop there. John Haley remembers a meeting of the county commissioner’s court when one man swung a 16-inch metal tool, called a hoof rasp, used for shoeing horses, at one of Don Creager’s predecessors. Another man saved the judge by blocking the blow with his arm.
The most famous feud so far, in fact, has been between McKinley Hopper himself and the late Commissioner Bob Moorehead. It was a dispute over personal power, and it ran for years. People took sides. Friendships fractured. The two men finally came to blows. Ignoring, fortunately, a pistol lying on a car seat, they brawled on the ground in a roadway near Bob Moorehead’s place until, by McKinley Hopper’s account, he was able to pull Bob Moorehead’s arm around the back bumper of the car and break the bone with a snap that he can feel yet--and shudders to think about.
The shudder is important. Even when the people here are feuding, they have an extraordinary trait. “They might hate each other, but when one of them has trouble and the chips are down, every one of them comes to help,” says Newt’s daughter Ann. “Everybody comes, everybody gives, everybody helps. It’s amazing how they might not talk all year long, but if a disaster or something bad happens to any one of them, then they’re all there, every one of them.”
The Newt Keen-Punk Jones race for sheriff was fairly tame, by comparison; but it was plenty hard-fought, nonetheless. In the end, Newt lost; and Punk Jones won reelection, 50-37.
“Best thing that ever happened to me,” Newt Keen says, reflecting on how much he would have liked being sheriff. Is their feud over? “We’re good friends now,” Newt Keen says. “Punk’s a good feller.” From Newt Keen, there is no higher praise.
For his part, Punk Jones acknowledges, if a little defensively, the hard feelings caused by what he did. “In his heyday, Newt was doing a lot of stuff that was out of line, and I came down on him. A lot of people didn’t like it.” Is the feud over? “As far as I am concerned, it is. You can’t let personal things get in the way of the sheriff business.”
There is one thing, however, that Punk Jones does not know. “For those 10 days of that suspension, I couldn’t sell no beer, y’know,” Newt Keen says. “But they didn’t lock none up, either. I had all my beer. And when my shutdown was over, well, I didn’t have a beer left.”
Oh? What happened?
“Out the back door.” Newt Keen pauses. “Couldn’t sell it, but the people had to have something to drink. Cain’t drink the water, y’know.”
GRIT IS INCARNATE IN THE Haleys. John works his ranch without electricity or a phone. His water is good, but he pumps it with a windmill. When there is no wind and his tank runs dry, he has no water. Brother Gene, 64, built a zoo on his ranch, which straddles the Loving/Winkler county line. He collected 67 kinds of animals--from mountain lions to a wallaby--before the zoo went broke.
But the best evidence of stubborn courage has nothing to do with wild animals or feuds or enduring a drought--God-inflicted or imposed by the sheriff. It has to do with the birth of a baby. Sharon McVay, 30, is a tall, handsome woman with dark blond hair. She and her husband, Greg, 36, live in a 16-by-80-foot mobile home, yellow with brown trim, just outside Mentone, with his son, J.J., 16, and their daughter, Dana, 10. When Sharon McVay got pregnant again, she announced that she would have the baby at home.
It worried people. If anything went wrong, help was a county away. But Sharon McVay had made up her mind. “Pretty headstrong,” Edna Dewees says of her friend. “She’s got a mind of her own.” At 6:30 a.m., on Jan. 11, 1990, Sharon McVay went into labor. Another friend, Jaime Jones, 28, drove into Pecos and picked up Delfina Hinojos, a midwife. All she brought along were rubber gloves.
By 3 p.m., Sharon McVay’s pains were coming two minutes apart. “But she didn’t even get a frown on her face until 9 o’clock,” Greg McVay says. “No pills, nothing. You know, midwives can’t give you no kind of drugs.”
Delfina Hinojos prepared the birth canal.
“Sharon’s contractions started coming real short,” Greg McVay says. “And Delfina taught me to kind of help push the baby, you know. I got behind her, and she said to kind of push, and you could feel the feet. You could feel the baby’s feet! Yeah. It was incredible, man. I just kind of helped push.”
By now it was nearly 10 p.m. Juanita Busby was getting anxious about Greg McVay’s dinner. She cooked for him and drove out to the mobile home. “I put dinner in the oven for him.”
At 10:02 p.m., Greg McVay stormed headlong into the kitchen. “ ‘The baby’s here!’ ” Juanita Busby says he shouted, loud enough to be heard in Ft. Worth. “ ‘The baby’s here! Come back here and see the baby!’
Greg McVay says: “Oh, it was just beautiful! I was so proud. Sure enough.”
The McVays named their new daughter Amanda Nicole. Jaime Jones, who was the relief postmistress at the time, brought a parcel scale. Delfina Hinojos weighed and measured Amanda Nicole McVay: Eight pounds, 21 inches.
Amanda Nicole McVay was the first baby born in Loving County in 39 years.
“While the midwife was cleaning up the baby, I got up and took me a shower,” Sharon McVay says. “I mean, having a baby is painful, but it’s not that bad. I was up doing the laundry and everything the next day, and I was up straightening up the house. I didn’t have to cook for quite a few days, though, because everybody in town had brought so much food.”
Last month, Amanda turned 3. She has deep brown eyes and dark brown hair. “She’s going to be a hell raiser,” her daddy says. “I know she is. She took after her mama, I swear to God.”
HELL RAISING IS ONLY PART of it. If she follows in the footsteps of her people, she will be smart, self-sufficient, a survivor.
Newt Keen is not given to speeches or to lecturing or to preaching. Cowboys simply do not do that. But his goodbys are interesting. They seem to make the point.
“So long,” he says.
Good luck, replies a visitor, putting on his coat to drive to El Paso to catch a plane.
“Don’t worry about us,” Newt Keen says. He glances upward. “So long as He’s with us, we can take care of ourselves.”