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After 91 Years, Coronavirus Brings A Texas Rancher's Last Sunset

Raymond Reeves sits on a brown horse with this gray and white dog at his ranch in Donley County.
Courtesy of the Reeves family
Raymond Reeves rides a horse at his Donley County ranch in the early 2000s.

Not for anything could Raymond Reeves bluff his way through a game of poker. Somehow, his children recall, his face always revealed the hand he’d been dealt.

Perhaps it was the honesty, the sincerity, the fundamental good-guy, good-neighbor mentality. Raised in Floydada, in Texas’ sparse Panhandle, Reeves was the storybook Texas farmer and rancher throughout his 91 years, the type of father who would place his children atop a new horse minutes after they’d been bucked off another — no member of his family would grow up fearing animals.

He preferred old western movies and country music, and, like anyone who made a living growing wheat and sorghum in a harsh landscape, he was “addicted to the weather,” his daughter Cindy Reeves remembers.

Green fields, some hills and a stock pond are topped by a bright blue sky and wispy white clouds.
Courtesy of the Reeves family
The Reeves family ranch in Donley County, Texas.

He loved to sit on the porch in the evening to watch the sky change colors. He’d sometimes call his eldest daughter Carol and say: “I am looking at yet another beautiful sunset that will not be like any other sunset of my entire life.”

In the last years of his life, Reeves, who was divorced, lived alone on the 2,600-acre family ranch, three miles off U.S. Route 287, between Memphis, Texas (population 2,200) and Hedley, Texas (population 300). He had long since stopped driving his truck, though not his John Deere, and he remained active — and fiercely independent. After an October ice storm, so bad it shut off his electricity and forced him to take shelter in his pickup, Carol called a neighbor to check on him. He was not pleased.

When Reeves died he still had 120 cows and calves, down from 300 at the height of his work. That’s not to mention the animals he bought mostly for fun: donkeys, longhorns, llamas. Raymond Reeves did not suffer a mean animal. They would be sold immediately.

Reeves lived through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, a world at war and nine months of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. When he died Nov. 8 in an Amarillo hospital, his children were surprised to hear that complications from the virus had been the cause.

Once most concentrated in the nation's urban centers, COVID-19 has not spared the rural, rectangular counties of the Texas Panhandle, where meatpacking plants became early incubators of the disease and community spread is now the unfortunate reality. More than 400,000 Americans have now died of the virus, including more than 34,000 in Texas and 10 in Donley County, where Reeves lived.

In Texas, counties with low numbers of coronavirus cases can opt out of the governor’s mask mandate, as a number of Panhandle counties did, and for the most part, wearing masks is more common in the cities.

Danny Francis, a Briscoe County commissioner and survivor of COVID-19 who rented land from Reeves, said early on he didn’t expect so many in his area to contract the virus — nor did he expect it to spread so fast or work so hard. But now, his mind gets stuck on a small rural neighborhood of four households — one of them Raymond Reeves’ — where three people he knows died of the virus last year.

When the virus began to spread in the United States, the Reeves kids, now 63, 59 and 56, struggled to convince their dad to take it seriously, they recall. Before stores and local governments began requiring masks, they pushed him to wear one. At first, the idea seemed ridiculous to him.

“It was very difficult for him to grasp that this was serious,” Carol Reeves said. “He’s been tough and resilient his whole life and he did not understand that he was vulnerable.”

Eventually he promised to wear the mask at Walmart and doctor’s appointments. But they suspected he didn’t always wear it around friends.

“He had this idea that if he was visiting a friend or going into town and seeing someone that he had known forever, that it wasn’t dangerous,” Cindy Reeves said.

The virus tried to corrupt the community spirit that sustained him through his long life. Neighbors and friends became threats. In the spring, despite his children's protests, he did the usual roundup and branding of calves, annual tasks that would have brought other people to the ranch, likely invited in to eat.

“They didn’t see the mask as their way of keeping their community together,” Carol Reeves said. “They saw it as a way to separate one another.”

Raymond Reeves loved his ranch and no one who knew him could imagine him living anywhere else. But the solitude was a double-edged sword. This was the man who’d run into the farm store on a quick errand only to leave his kids waiting in the pickup for 45 minutes as he chatted up everyone he saw. He loved to tell stories — or to correct others’ telling of stories, David Reeves recalled with a chuckle.

“You live out in the middle of nowhere,” Carol Reeves said. “You go to the tire store, and sit there and talk and want to stay and chat as long as possible and tell stories and make people laugh. Everywhere he went there was that connection — because you do live isolated, so you cherish those moments of connection with somebody. The last thing you want to do is offend them by wearing a mask around them.”

The kids suspected he got lonely in his later years. Sometimes when he mentioned this to Cindy, she’d propose solutions, and he’d say, “Well it’s really not that big a deal, Cindy, I just wanted a little sympathy.”

He was generous to a fault, so much so that their mother used to complain that people were taking advantage of him.

He spoke to his children often, and saw them several times a year. One Thursday night in November he called Carol, but she had her hands full and didn’t answer. She called him back on Saturday morning, but he didn’t answer.

They didn’t know yet that he’d fallen. Kathy Turner, who helped him with ranch tasks, arrived that Saturday morning as usual to find the doors locked and no Raymond to greet her. She crawled through the doggie door and found Raymond on the floor by his bed, incoherent, fallen during the night. She got him in an ambulance for the trip to Amarillo.

As David Reeves began the drive from Fort Worth, he imagined he’d find his father dehydrated or perhaps with low blood sugar. It wasn’t until he spoke with the doctor that he realized COVID-19 had caused the brain damage that led to the fall.

By the time the children arrived, the situation was dire.

At first, it was too risky for them to be in the room with their father. Breathing machines can aerosolize a patient’s breath, spreading tiny, dangerous viral particles. Only when he was taken off — the only option, they and the doctors felt — could they go in, masked and gowned, to say a brief goodbye.

Knowing that Reeves lived his last cogent moments in the place he loved most — not forced to move to a nursing home or alien city — softened the loss for his children. But it could not blunt the hurt entirely. For David, it brought to mind a piece of family lore: that Raymond's mother had fallen to the ground on the ranch while out picking wildflowers, and died not long after.

"If you're going to go, that's kind of the way you want to go," he said.

That ranch still held so much of him — the memories of legendary Easter egg hunts (eggs would be stashed under cow patties, sometimes found months after the event) and of picking out a rare, sometimes homely Christmas tree from the limited selection, decorating it with handmade ornaments. Owning land is an ethic in their family, Carol Reeves said; it would not feel right to sell the ranch. Much of the family gathered there for Christmas this year, celebrating and remembering. They know every inch of the property, their favorite walks and preferred views. It is a place they could never get lost, even if the landscape might look monotonous to an outsider.

That day in November, after Reeves died, there was no tearing of wrapping paper or laughter of children. It was quiet when the children arrived back at the ranch. It felt heavy to enter the home; the sprawling property was “just so him,” David said. They were confronted with his absence; his things scattered on the table, his brown Schnauzer, Reggie, sniffing around, wondering where he’d gone.

Emma Platoff is a breaking news reporter at The Texas Tribune. She previously worked at the Tribune as a reporting fellow and is a recent graduate of Yale University, where she studied English literature and nonfiction writing. She has also worked as the managing editor of the Yale Daily News and as an intern at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Hartford Courant.