The Toughest Texan by Brian Lee Knopp

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A flock of sheep in a field

The phone messages had been intriguing. Funny, even.

“This is Dewayne Bagwell. I live in Harris—you probably don’t even know where that is. I’m down here in Rutherford County, near the South Carolina border. Hell, we got sheep everywhere. They’re just hard to spot because they’re all wrapped up in kudzu. Gotta use goats to chew ’em loose sometimes. I got thirty-some sheep for you to shear. I would have called you two weeks ago but I had two sheep fall into my pond. They soaked up every bit of water. Must’ve weighed a ton each. Had to pull ’em out with my jeep and a come-along. You shearers won’t shear wet sheep, I hear you on that. I’ll make it worth your while to come down here and shear ’em. You won’t have to catch ’em, just shear ’em. Won’t take ya long.”

“Hey, it’s me again—the feller over in Rutherford County with the two-ton sheep. They’re dry now. Cleaned up real nice. I woulda took a hairdryer to ’em, but they mighta shrunk too much. Somebody might’ve caught me blow drying sheep and called the law. Don’t need that aggravation. Had to dry me a stack of dollar bills once. My wallet fell into the river while I was fishin’. Liked to have worried myself puny when that happened. Thought I’d wind up busted for money laundering. Anyway, this is a good shearing job for you. That other shearer, Rick, gave me your number. He’s all right for a Yankee. He said he was too busy to come by this year, told me to give you a call.”

Bagwell had intrigued me with his twanging, rasping run-on sentences and chain-linked descriptions of topics relevant and not. And he knew Rick, one of the three reliable shearers in the region. I called him back and set the shearing date. He seemed to suffer from a motormouth stuck in overdrive, but what the hell? The addition of intrigue and amusement often helped turn a bad day into a good one.

Sheep shearing was low pay and high risk—a harmless addiction and a benign sideline that at least paid for itself. It required a fascinating combination of art, skill, and extreme sport thrills, and took place in some of the most breathtaking rural scenery in the country. I dearly loved the honey-nut smell of fresh lanolin, the harmonica-like peals of newborn lambs calling for their mothers, and the look of a cleanly-shorn sheep.

The next morning, I set off early and knocked out my first two shearing jobs well before lunchtime. They had left me only a little grimy, but no worse for wear. Onto Bagwell’s farm.

I was anticipating the satisfaction of a full shearing day when I saw the big black mailbox with “BAGWELL” painted in large, white, loopy letters. As I drove up the long double-track that cut off from the paved road, I saw someone standing next to a beat-up old Army jeep. The jeep was parked at the tree line where the hard clay tracks disappeared.

The man was short and stocky, with rounded shoulders and a slight stoop. He stood with his arms folded and his head cocked slightly to one side. The huge, mirrored aviator’s glasses reflected the searing sun. His expression was impassive, inscrutable. He had a gray toothbrush mustache and long, pointed sideburns topped by a crumpled John Deere cap. He wore faded khaki work pants and a striped, long-sleeved dress shirt opened just below his sunburned neck. A spike of a cigarette smoldered between grubby fingers.

I pulled up to him and dipped my cowboy hat in a nod.

“Hey there. You Dewayne Bagwell?”

The sunglasses returned the image of me and my truck. The mustache moved slightly.

“I am. And I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts you’re the sheep shearer.”


He shook his head and spat near his feet.

“Yessir? Yessir? Shee-it, don’t call me sir. I was a sergeant, I worked for a living. Where you from, boy?”

The answer “lots of different places” would be the truth. But it always seemed smart-assed and evasive. Since I had arrived in North Carolina from Texas, it appealed to me at the time to be accurate. So that’s what I said.


That was my first mistake.

My reply unsettled him. He unfolded his crossed arms and dropped his hands on his hips. He stepped closer to my truck, stuck out his chest, and craned his neck forward like a fighting cock. His mouth curled to one side in a smirk, which looked more menacing under the chromed bug-eyes of his sunglasses.

“TEXAS! You a Texan? Hell, that means you think you’re pretty tough, don’t you, Tex? Sure you do—gotta be tough to shear sheep, right? Texans’re pretty tough customers, or so they’ll tell you all day long. Well, Tex, I’m a pretty tough customer, too. And I’ll shoot the first sonofabitch that says otherwise—”

And with that, he jerked a shiny .38 revolver out of a baggy front pocket and brandished it to the side of his body.

That gesture should have brought the shearing day to a close. But it didn’t. That was my second mistake.

For some fatalistic reasons I still don’t understand, I didn’t speed away and try to run him over in the process. Instead, I merely growled at him.

“Put that damn thing away now and for good! Or I’m gone!”

The mustache under the glassy glare stretched wider. A row of corn-colored teeth appeared as his grin. He put the weapon back in his pocket.

“Aw, now, Tex, don’t get your Levi’s all in a wad—I was just funnin’ you! I thought all Texans loved guns. Guns, bad steak, jalapeño peppers, shitty beer, and titty bars. That’s Texas. You know, I served in the military down there, had me a time for a while. Yeah, boy!”

“Let’s get at it, son! Follow me on up the road there to the gate. I’ll even open it for you, Tex. I aim to please, now, I surely do. You’ll see the barn and the sheep penned up there.”

I sat in my truck and watched the jeep disappear into the wooded border of the property. I was uneasy, like I had just eaten something that would disagree with me later. But I had faced down many bad preludes to these shearing gigs before, and they often turned out golden. Then again, they sometimes became horror shows in which I was both the victim and villain.

I flipped a mental coin. The option of bailing on this job lost. I made my way down the long drive to Bagwell’s farm.

When I came to the gate and the perimeter barbed wire fencing that delineated the pasture area from the woods, I could see that a second fence surrounded a smaller square paddock that was approximately 100 by 100 feet. The fence enclosing the paddock was a combination of tangled barbed wire, woven hog wire, and wooden pallets stood up on end, with the barbed wire and occasional hay baling twine run through the wooden slots. The paddock was a level area at the bottom of a grassy arena formed by the surrounding eroded hills. Long serpentine trails of hard red clay bled through the close-cropped dark green fields. Patches of bull nettle, thistle and burdock weeds were scattered throughout the pastures.

At one end of the level paddock was a small, wood-sided storage shed with an extended roof. The roof covered grain troughs and an area as big as a pickup truck that was blocked off by packing crates and pallets. That looked to be the sheep barn. The blocked off area resembled a makeshift lambing pen. Conspicuously placed on the ground next to the shed and at the end of the lamb pen was the shearing platform: a full sheet of warped and weathered plywood. The paddock itself was littered with tractor attachments and other hardened steel farm implements. And standing amid all this and the barbed wire and the thorny weeds were the sheep themselves.

Big sheep. Dirty sheep. Dirty sheep with full tails.

A darkness fell upon me.  I don’t recall a real cloud passing over. Because there were none in the burning sky that day.

No, I think it was a shroud of destiny, inescapable, indelibly imagined. Underneath this brief and illusory pall cast by the portends of this situation before me, I surveyed the paddock. I took in the condition and number of the sheep, the configuration of the potential sheep shearing location. And I saw pain. Sheep pain. My pain. Pain everywhere I looked.

The paddock was too big for a crowding pen. There was too much room for the sheep to run away at full speed back and forth, without ever feeling compelled to bunch together for safety. The barbed wire could snag a speeding woolly creature and puncture it repeatedly as it struggled to free itself from the fence’s metal teeth.  The tractor accessories threatened further injuries to a fleeing sheep.

Then there were the sheep themselves. Big, leggy Suffolk and Suffolk crossbreed. And except for the big black-headed ram, the rest all had long, grungy tails.

Now sheep tails were a legacy I had encountered only a few times before. In small, very carefully managed flocks, sheep tails were not a problem. But shepherds and sheep shearers, alike, generally do not want tails on sheep. The tails are docked when the lambs are only a few days old to avoid serious injuries, parasites, and infections. Sheep in a wet climate like North Carolina will normally develop diarrhea or “scour” when they eat fresh grass in the spring after a long winter of dry hay and grain. And sheep with intestinal worms will also scour. For sheep with tails, the liquid manure coats the woolly appendage and forms a stinking, sodden three-foot-long, greenish flail. The foulness of such a weapon cannot be appreciated fully until one must grab it near the base to position the sheep for shearing—and then this pipe cleaner from Hell swats you in the face.

Bagwell stood waiting by the main paddock gate. I got out of my truck, walked over to him, and pointed to the little shack at the right-hand end of the paddock.

“Is that where I’m shearing?”


“You got a herding dog or somebody else to help you catch the sheep and bring them all that way to me?”

“Nope. Just little ole me.”

“Uh huh. Right. Okay, then, I’ll set up my gear. Bring that big ram to me first.”

“Will do, Captain. You get ready, ’cause they’re gonna come flying to you, now, you’ll see. I’m the baddest cowboy east of the Pecos.”

I nodded resignedly and walked away to fetch my gear and set up for shearing. I nailed the 2×4 support for my shearing machine against the shed wall. My hammering rattled the entire rickety structure. I mounted the machine on the wooden support and connected the flexible driveshaft. As I busied myself oiling the handpiece and adjusting the tension between the cutter and the comb, shots rang out in the paddock. Followed by shouts of “YEE-HA, YEE-HA, C’MON SHEEP, HEY YAH SHEEP!”

Bagwell was trotting after his frightened flock, which scattered before him like broken shards from a dropped dish. He was twirling a rope lasso above his head. His shiny pistol glinted just above the front of his trousers.

I stared in open-mouthed disbelief as woolly missiles hurtled past me, followed by Bagwell’s stooped, stalking body and the lasso flipping this way and that.

He was out of his mind. The sheep were panicked out of theirs, but for good reason. An armed madman with a noose was pursuing them.

Bagwell’s roundup stoked the fearful animals into a frenzy. The frightened creatures crashed into farm tools, into each other. They caromed off the broken wood pallets and surrounding fence, leaving streamers of freshly-snagged wool hanging everywhere like pennants at a racetrack. Which in effect the paddock had just become. The high-speed sheep collisions exposed spots of bright pink skin underneath their darkened fleece. Even as they flew by me, I could tell, by sight and by smell, that every one of them had scours. Their entire backsides were coated with a dark green filth that was both hardened and fresh. On some sheep, the dried clots of manure clicked and rattled together as they ran, sounding like a crowd of gamblers rolling dice and giving me a whole new take on the expression “shooting craps.”

After several stampedes around the paddock, Bagwell succeeded in roping the big ram. But just as he reeled himself closer to the panting, head-shaking animal, the beast bolted, taking Bagwell with him. The loony with the lasso remained upright as the ram dragged him effortlessly around the paddock. Bagwell looked like a water skier being pulled by a woolly motorboat. But he never lost his hat or his sunglasses or his maniacal grin as he slalomed around the farm equipment. Gradually he pulled himself closer, hand-over-hand, to the crazed animal. After much delay, he led the ram over to me.

Professional shearers have a saying: Always shear the rams first. That is, when you’re fresh with energy and flush with sharp blades and combs, you start with the biggest, strongest, and usually the most difficult animals first.

Professional shearers have another saying: To hell with insane shepherds and their bad shearing setups.

At least I followed the first directive.

The word “difficult” did not even come close to capturing the challenge presented by the bellowing, snorting, raging creature brought before me. The ram arrived understandably psychotic from Bagwell’s chase. He repeatedly lowered his hornless head and made short powerful charges at me until the lasso halted him. Then the enraged beast would spin around and launch at Bagwell, butting him and knocking him to the ground. He battered down the fencing. He smashed holes right though the wooden plank siding of the shed.

That ram fought me for all he was worth.

And that’s the way it would go, with less ferocity but with more foulness, under a remorseless sun—twenty-nine more times.

But it was not the near-impossible shearing conditions that scorched my soul that day. It was Bagwell himself, and his maniacal motormouth, that almost made me quit shearing for good.

Once he had snared a hapless sheep and hauled it over to me crazed, bleeding, and shit-stained—then the real torture began. Bagwell pulled a broken stool from out of the shed and perched on it just beyond the edge of the shearing board. He would lean forward on his little chair, bending over so far, his face was inches from my butt. And because I sheared using the New Zealand positions and shearing strokes, I was bent over at the waist virtually the entire time I was working on an animal. No matter how I twisted and turned as I revolved clockwise in the center of the board, there he would be, an upside-down talking head hovering right next to me. He always had a cigarette going—unfiltered Camels. The smoke would swirl around my hips and over the sheep and under my crotch, then spiral right up my nose and into my inverted brain.

Over the buzz of the shearing machine, the screams of terrified sheep, and the choking smoke, Bagwell harangued nonstop. He paused only when I finished a sheep and he had to trudge off to wrangle another one. When the new sheep arrived, his nonsense would again gush forth from the toothy hole underneath the moustache like air from a punctured tire.

This man would talk in his sleep, talk in my sleep, talk inside his coffin, talk inside my coffin. After more than twenty years, I still can’t get his voice out of my head.

“Yeah, boy, that ram has a pair on him, don’t he? Wish I had a set like that and something to drive them with. Sonofabitch damn near crippled me awhile back. Turned my back on him for a minute and he butted me good. If he had had horns, I’d be singing the high parts in the church choir. Hell, I’d have his damn skull on the hood of my jeep if he wasn’t such a good ram. Don’t know what I’d do with his nuts, though. Maybe them bagpipe players could use them, they wear them hairy ole things. Don’t play bagpipes down in Texas, do they? Just guitars, harmonicas, and beer farts, I suppose…”

“You know, the best thing I ever read about Texas was in a truck stop shitter—HERE I SIT/CHEEKS A-FLEXIN’/GIVIN’ BIRTH/TO ANOTHER TEXAN! Haw haw. Loved that. You all right, boy, I like you…”

“Hey, Tex, tell me something. How come all the Texas boys but you got girlie names? Kim, Stacy, Tracy, Carroll, Leslie—Good Lord, that’s all I ever run into down there. Must be the Boy Named Sue thing. Make ya tough. Hey, now, you ever hold the tip of your tongue and say ‘cowboy’s lasso’? Try it . . . cowboyth ath-thole. Haw haw haw. Hoo-boy, that’s a good one, forgot about that one for a spell.”

At one point, as I waited for Bagwell to deliver another sheep, I saw a vulture circling in the electric sky. It wasn’t there on a whim.

My life force was almost spent. I hurt. I stank. I had long ago run out of drinking water and patience. I felt bruised, and sunburnt to a cinder. My eyes were salt rimmed like margarita glasses. I didn’t need a mirror to know I was a sight, something to excite pity and disgust, an errant creature caught up, chewed upon, and spat out by some diabolical machine. I was ashamed I’d put myself at the mercy of a lunatic and his nasty sheep.

But at that very moment of despair, I saw that I had only three more sheep to go. I knew I could make it. The vulture would go hungry awhile longer.

Another sheep. And another tirade from the baddest cowboy east of the Pecos.

And then, once the last shorn sheep had bolted away to rejoin the flock, it was quiet. I had snapped the shearing motor off, laid down my handpiece, and stood still. Even Bagwell was silent. We surveyed the paddock. The flock glowed against the background, their now sleek white whippy tails waggling behind them as they nibbled at the ground. Except for a blemish here and there on a few sheep, they were resplendent. The ram looked calm and majestic, surveying his harem with a protective stare. The shorn fleece lay in knee-high piles surrounding the little barn, looking like piles of house insulation. Then Bagwell spoke.

“All right, Tex. Let’s go get your money and get you gone. I ain’t got all day to socialize.”

“What do you mean, ‘go get my money’?”

“It’s up at the house. I don’t carry all my moolah around with me when I work. Like to lose it that way. Be back in the shake of a lamb’s tail.”

And with that, he ambled off toward his jeep and drove away.

I looked at the cheap digital watch I had hung on my shearing machine support. Five hours had passed since I first laid eyes on Bagwell. Half of that time was spent waiting on him, the other half enduring him. Now I was at his mercy again for payment. The realization sparked a deep anger in me. But there was nothing left in me to catch fire and burn to a rage.

I was whipped. For $90 and a sense of adventure, I had subjected myself to physical and mental abuse beyond my endurance. I just wanted to go home.

As I gathered up my gear, I tried to console myself that it could have been much worse. No sheep had died or been maimed. I didn’t get shot. When I tried to pull the nails out of my shearing machine support, one of them must have clinched on the inside of the planks of the shed, because it would not loosen. That, or I didn’t have the strength left to yank it free.

I walked stiffly inside the shed, which was no longer dark because the sun’s declining rays poured through the cracks and the holes made by the ram’s head. When I took a step toward the wall that bore my shearing support, I noticed there was a narrow wooden shelf just above where the nail points poked through the wall. On top of the shelf were boxes without tops, covered with dust. On the sides was lettering, barely visible through the grime, with the name “DuPont.”

I stepped up to look inside one of the boxes.

Dynamite. Row after row of aging, oozing, fuzzed-over brownish cardboard tubes of dynamite. And tucked in one corner of the box were several braids of blasting caps.

I barely breathed as I scanned the length of the shelf and saw box after box of the same.

I recalled how I had hammered nails into that wall that supported the shelf, which contained all the old dynamite and blasting caps.

And how that ram had repeatedly smashed his head against the shed in which boxes of unstable explosives were stored.

And Bagwell had not said a word about it.

At that point, my mind went blank. My body functioned on autopilot. I left the 2×4 support nailed to the shed. Instead, I unbolted the shearing machine and packed it in my truck. My muscles began to quiver and cramp, so it took me awhile to figure out how to sit in the truck without my hamstrings locking up and keeping me from using the gas, clutch, and brake pedals.

As I drove away from the paddock, I felt oddly relieved to see that Bagwell’s jeep was already at the gate, and that he was opening it. I didn’t want to move until the muscle spasms subsided.

I pulled on through the gate, took the truck out of gear, and stuck my hand out the open window. He laid a hundred-dollar bill on my greasy palm.

“I gave you a tip because them sheep were a tad dingy. They look pretty good now, though, don’t they? Don’t spend all your dough in one of them flophouses in Forest City, now. Those gals will break the lead in your pencil, know what I mean? See ya next year, Tex.”


Meet the Contributor

Brian Lee Knopp is a retired North Carolina private investigator. In 2009, he published his memoir Mayhem in Mayberry: Misadventures of a P.I. in Southern Appalachia. He also created and contributed to the 2012 collaborative novel Naked Came the Leaf Peeper. A former professional sheep shearer with an MA degree in English Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, Knopp has taught composition at Warren Wilson College and nonfiction writing for the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC-Asheville. His nonfiction work has appeared in Stoneboat Journal, WNC Magazine, and Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine.

Image Source: Martin Pettitt / Flickr Creative Commons

  5 comments for “The Toughest Texan by Brian Lee Knopp

  1. Not recommended for relaxed, bedtime reading. This piece kept me wide awake, cracking me up with unforgettable characters wrapped in the scents and sounds of barnyard chaos. Awesome read!

  2. Brian Lee Knopp grabbed my attention at the beginning of this story and didn’t let go till the final “nope”. Hilarious, insightful and the introduction of an unforgettable character and situation has me wanting more from this author. Thank you!

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