When first learning the history of this area, it’s natural to focus on the big events as being those that tell the story of the past. The bloody conquest and banishment of indigenous people who had roamed these plains for centuries. The first ranches, some so vast that their founders, who might have been common men in other places, became, in this place, a new kind of king. The settlers rolling in, with circumstances more humble but dreams that were just as big, building towns only to move them again and again in pursuit of the location they hoped would guarantee the prosperity they sought. The arrival of the railroads with their endless miles of track that would change a land that had been unchanged since time immemorial. Lines appearing on maps that proclaimed counties. Counties, once proclaimed, that demanded governance. These are the events that, for most of us, tell the tale of the taming of the Great Plains of the West.
While enormously significant, these history-changing events are, in some ways, just the backdrop, the canvas upon which the most heartfelt true story is told. The truth of the “true West”—the soul of it—is the story of the individual. The lone cowboy. The self-contained pioneer. Photo after photo taken of people during those years long ago reveal the same look of solitude in each person’s eyes, and each person, who was more often silent than not, carried their story deep within themselves.
One such individual was a Scotsman named William Dargy. Having come to the area in the “early years”, Dargy was first viewed as a gruff man, almost unfriendly. But it was soon learned that this was just his nature, perhaps the result of a life spent as a bachelor—a status that never changed, and neither had he planned for it to. As his neighbors grew to know him better, Dargy became a man “much loved because of his kind nature and sterling character”.
The handful of Scots in the area raised sheep, but Dargy had chosen cattle, which consumed a great deal of his time. This was fine with him. He preferred keeping to himself, working on his ranch and watching it begin to prosper, and he confined his social activities to attending the Masonic fraternity meetings in the newly formed lodge down in Lamar.
One day, a young man came to his ranch, inquiring about work as a ranch hand. Dargy, always one to admire a man willing to work hard, agreed to hire him for a few days. He soon discovered that the young man was of a very good character and devoted to his duties. He was also unusually quiet, even for Dargy, but when he spoke, it was in an articulate and educated way.
So, they worked together for the next few days. If the young man found the work difficult, he didn’t complain. In fact, he managed to keep step with Dargy, which was no easy task. The long days ended with quiet conversations in the evening, a pastime Dargy realized he had been missing. The young man was a good listener and often asked questions that, Dargy thought, were a reflection of a good intelligence. Dargy couldn’t help but notice that the young man spoke very little of his own life and, when asked, was actually quite adept at shifting the focus off of himself and on to something else. Looking back on things, Dargy remembered moments when he would catch the young man sitting in silence, staring off into space with an almost tragic expression of sorrow on his face. But the old Scot never asked. He wouldn’t. The way he viewed it, if the young man wanted to share his thoughts, he would, and if he didn’t, well, there was nothing Dargy could do about that.
Dargy grew accustomed to the company and convinced the young man to prolong his stay. He had to admit—to himself, only—that he felt a growing affection for the ranch hand. Once or twice, he even allowed himself to think that this must be what it felt like to have a son, but he didn’t allow those thoughts to enter his mind very often or to stay very long, once they were there. Dargy was, if nothing else, a typical Scotsman, and economy—even in thinking—was a well-practiced habit.
Yet, despite his natural frugality, Dargy also had a generous heart. With no heirs to whom he could leave his worldly possessions, he’d already formed a plan in his mind of who would get what upon his passing. He had no illusions of the young man staying permanently; the sorrowful look that would occasionally come into his eyes told Dargy that a day would come when he would leave to finish whatever unfinished business still called to him from somewhere else in the world. But he could at least set aside a small sum of extra pay to help him whenever that day came.
Of course, that day did come, and it came in a fashion that Dargy had silently predicted. The young man received a letter, and whatever it said caused the young man great distress. He told Dargy he must be on his way, that very same day. Dargy didn’t ask why. It wasn’t his question to ask. But when he gave the young man the money he’d set aside for him, he was embarrassed at the emotion that overcame them both. The gruffness returned, deliberately so, and only faded when he could no longer see the figure of the young man walking away.
It took a while for the house to stop sounding so silent, the work to stop feeling so solitary, and Dargy scolded the foolishness of his emotion. Eventually, the old routine soothed his loneliness, which was almost a relief to the old man. Time passed, and having learned nothing, Dargy stopped wondering about the young man’s fate.
And then, he got a telegram from Denver, and it asked him to come, at once. A person in the hospital was dying and wanted to see him. Mr. Dargy took the very next train, having no idea who it was that wanted to see him.
When he was ushered into the hospital room, he was surprised to be introduced to a young woman who was refined and, sadly, ill beyond any hope of recovery. But it was not until she spoke and held out her hand that he realized the young woman before him was the ranch hand who had left. She introduced him to her husband who had been standing out of immediate sight. Dargy would later remember very little of the man except that he seemed to be a true gentleman.
She then told him why she had assumed the appearance of a man. Her husband had been convicted of a crime while in a position of great honor and trust. She, in turn, had been shunned by all around them, dismissed and disgraced to such an extent that she wanted to lose herself among strangers who knew nothing of who she was or what had happened. But it had been discovered he was innocent of the crime, and her husband had come west where they were reunited only to be separated once again. The doctors had said she would not survive for long. The hardships she’d endured working as a ranch hand were more than her body could withstand and the damage of that time was irreparable.
For years, Mr. Dargy had held this story, telling no one until the night—overcome with grief and guilt-- he’d confessed it to a man he barely knew. He had only chosen to tell it then because he was leaving the next day for a brief visit to Scotland, having found himself longing for the country of his youth. It was a trip from which he’d never return for, while he was there, he grew ill and died.
Perhaps, that’s precisely why Mr. Dargy told his story when he did. Perhaps, at some level, he knew the story belonged to this land and these people, and, so, this is where it should stay.