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The throwback

9/25/2001

The rack measures 24 inches on the inside, and has 35 points. It belonged to a whitetail in western Kansas, where on a cold day in January a cowboy named Rick Wickham found it on the prairie not far from the main house of a ranch he worked back in the mid '90s.

Neither Rick nor anyone else he knew had ever seen such a rack. It made him wonder about the animal that once possessed it. Judging it to be less than a few months on the ground, Wickham began asking questions, and as word spread about his discovery reports came back to him about a couple of local teenagers, one of whom shot a big whitetail during the previous hunting season. By all accounts, it was probably the same animal that once moved with pride, strength and grace under the huge rack found by Wickham.

But Rick decided that the person who shot the deer did not have the interest, or the heart, to track the animal the nine miles it traveled along breaks and across pastures to lie down for the last time with its life going out of it. Whoever that was didn't deserve the rack. So Rick kept it. Soon, calls began coming from prospective buyers. One man from Kansas City offered to pay $20,000 for the rack — cash on the spot. But Rick quietly declined, partly because he didn't like the idea of someone hanging it on his wall under the pretense that he'd earned it in the field, and partly because the rack had a singular beauty that had nothing to do with money.

Rick has an artist's eye and the hands of a master craftsman. He can build a wood fence straight and true, or curve it around a drive. He can carve a gamebird out of walnut that seems to move when you watch it. He can shoe horses, make farm machines work long past their prime, and break colts so that when he's done they still like to have him around. He can also hunt and flyfish and call in coyotes when the snow is blue under the moon. And when the sun hammers Kansas with 100-degree heat he can make flowers and grass grow as if it were spring.

Today, Wickham manages a quarter horse farm called Prairie Star on the southeastern outskirts of Wichita, 90 minutes on I-35 from Topeka where he grew up without any silver spoons in sight. Self-taught, self-possessed and content in the company of friends, he is Kansas tough on the outside and deep on the inside with respect for hard work, honesty and all things wild. While building a gate recently, he spent an hour sculpting a space in the top board to accommodate the low-slung branch of an Osage orange tree. Of course, he could have removed the limb in seconds with a chain saw, but that's not how Rick does things.

At 42, Rick Wickham is a throwback to the days before corporate farms and ranches started taking the magic of humanity out of the land. He endures, holding his talents close, using them every day to earn a living, while keeping alive the personal touch in an era when slap-up, quick-buck construction passes for progress.

Maybe Rick saw a bit of himself in that rack. With no place to hang it, and perhaps with a sense that it belonged where its owner had lived and died, Rick left it on that ranch where he'd found it.

Tight lines folks. I'll see ya soon.

CITGO In Search of Flywater airs Sundays at 7:30 a.m. ET and Thursdays at 6:00 a.m. ET during the months of July, August and September. A new Curt Gowdy memory appears in this space every other week.