One of the staples of elementary school library shelves across Texas is Hank the Cowdog – the dog who fancies himself the “head of ranch security” at the M-Cross Ranch in the Panhandle. Since 1983, Hank has solved mysteries, fended off coyotes, and pined for the affection of the ranch’s collie, Beulah.
It’s fiction, of course, but in his most recent adventure “The Case of the Monster Fire,” Hank faces a challenge that’s very real for his creator, John R. Erickson. That’s because Erickson’s ranch went up in flames during the massive Panhandle fires that burned over 300,000 acres last year.
Erickson says that when the fire started, the National Weather Service had been predicting it for days.
“I walked out the door and I saw the smoke,” he says. He and his wife Kris needed to leave quickly.
The next morning, his son got as close to the ranch as he could.
“The ranch was still burning, and he called us and said ‘I have terrible news.’ The house was gone,” Erickson says. “We also lost a nice little guest house, and I lost my writing office and my library. We lost every book we owned, every stitch of clothes. Kris lost ten quilts that she had made. So we were as homeless as snowbirds in winter.”
After the fire, Erickson tried to keep his usual writing schedule. He kept a journal of his activities recovering from the fire.
“In May, it was time to write a Hank book,” he says. “[The fire] was the thing that was on my mind. It had become kind of an obsession. I wasn’t sure that I could write a funny, lighthearted book about the kind of fire we went through, but I gave it a try and I think it turned out quite well.”
He says it typically takes him six weeks to write a Hank book, but this one took only three weeks. The book isn’t just about the tragedy of the fire – it’s also about the hope and generosity that came after.
“Ranchers up here had lost 318,000 acres of pasture land, and on our ranch, our cattle had nothing to eat,” he says. “But people in other parts of the state and as far as places like Michigan and Ohio started sending hay. And I was getting calls from people I didn’t know and had no idea how they got my phone number, and they were saying, ‘Where do you want this hay?’ There were two guys from Floresville, Texas, which is south of San Antonio, they had to go over 600 miles. Drove all night, and brought me 32 bales of hay.”
Erickson says he thanked them and they went on their way. He still doesn’t know who they were. Another call was from a farmer in Louisiana.
“His son was a Hank fan,” Erickson says, “and he heard about the fire and he said, ‘Daddy I want to take Hank some hay.’”
Helped by fellow ranchers, his faith community, and Hank readers from across Texas and even around the country, Erickson is recovering from the fire and turning his loss into an adventure for his characters and his fans.
Written by Christopher De Los Santos