Sunday, July 09, 2017

Boys to Men

Boys to Men
A Gila River Reunion
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

             If pushing a chain uphill is possible, this week has been representative.
            From ailments relating to attempting to perform like a young man in a body that isn’t along with trying craft the right words to convince the Secretary of Interior that our presence on federal lands is worthy, the days have passed. This has been a time that suggests heaven on earth doesn’t exist.
            Not surprisingly, the light hearted moments have come from lessons learned from those who influenced our lives from our past. The words of most importance are from them. They are not the words put to paper trying to save our ranches or our way of life.
            Boys to Men
            We branded last weekend.
            It started late Friday in the cool of the evening. We penned a bunch of cattle at our Howard pens and another bunch at the Monterey pens. The drive from the Raegan trough could have been slower if we hadn’t dropped the youngest pairs out. One of them had been picked up just above the drinker. I had gotten off to nudge the bright red baby up only to find its mother charging up to enforce her motherly obligations. She had bawled at me shaking her head and blowing snot.
            I suggested to her she was a good mother and many humans should emulate her conduct. She picked the calf up after I remounted and started to the herd, but I knew the calf couldn’t stay up. I cut them off and my presence signaled to her to stay put.
            Two more pairs were dropped out, similarly.
            The banter back and forth was largely the process of making the decision to bring those pairs or to drop them out. Most of the communication came from kids. Three little boys ages seven, nine, and 11 were part of the crew. BJ and I were there making final decisions, but the boys were offering their two cents with emphasis.

(L-R) Partner Bell, Preston Bell, Caleb Kane

            Two of them were brothers and the third was BJ’s son. They were all close friends and had been horseback since before they could walk. They had long been cowboys in every sense. They would have blended seamlessly into any scene in John Wayne’s Cowboys. Caleb, the oldest, was the only one with a summer straw. He was booted, spurred with a set of antique spurs that and had chap guards, and his leggin’s fit him like a glove. His hat had endured enough early rains that he had to lift his head just enough to see the horizon. The sorrel mare he rode carried a freeze brand of a prominent Arizona cow outfit.

11 year-old Caleb Kane

            Partner was the cowboy in the middle of the pack by age. On days I have seen him ride and work, his chaps go on and stay as if they are part of his permanent attire. His spurs will be switched out as soon as his boots are large enough to have spur ridges. The shape of his felt hat changes every time it rains. In a long trot, he posts. With cowboy courtesy, he’ll drop back behind you and come around the outside if he spots a calf coming to the herd a quarter mile away. He’ll hustle without every being prompted.

9 year-old Partner Bell

            Preston is the youngest cowboy. His hat is reminiscent of his brother’s. He is the most continuous in speech among the cowboys who end every phrase with “yes, sir” or “no, sir”.  He stands with one foot kinda’ cocked pigeon toed on the opposite boot when he is conversing with you afoot. He was riding a warm blood-quarter horse cross that dwarfed him, but he was boss. His split rains would rain fire down both hips if the big mare didn’t listen to him.

7 year-old Preston Bell

             At 5:15 the next morning, we were ready to sort. BJ, Caleb, Partner, and I were horseback while Preston was assigned the alley gate. The sort was quiet and efficient. Long before the trucks came with the rest of the crew, we were finished and ready to commence.
            With the equipment unloaded and laid out, irons hot, and calves staged, it was time to start. Our approach was simplistic. We crowded drafts of calves in the alley and the fathers waded in and dropped a rope over the calves Hawaiian style, caught two back feet and held the calf until their boys got the rope dallied. They drug the calf to the fire where it was flanked and processed. When that is done, they were reminded to drop the rope and let the calf kick free. Not once did we have anything suggesting a wreck. When good rhythm was established, we drug two calves, simultaneously. Watching the intensity of those boys had all of us smiling. That was especially the case when seven year old Preston was giving no quarter to that big cross bred mare when she didn’t enter the alley and stand like he expected her to do.
            Outside the pen, the yet younger children were tended in succession by mothers and big sister. The women would switch off and vaccinate and castrate.
Few urban matrons would have any idea how or what such a process would entail.
            The only hiccup came when a friend was asked to come in and finish roping the last calves at the Howard pens when the boys and their horses were tired. His horse broke in two and bucked with him in the pen. In our history, that was an isolated event and ended without undo harm. I did notice the boys were watching intently as the event unfolded. Advice was coming in waves as the Texas raised cowboy rode the first several jumps before inspecting the ground on the flat of his back.
            Nearly a hundred calves were branded that day.
            At the conclusion of the branding, the normal work for the day ensued. Water lines and storages were checked, valves were switched, a sick bull was treated, and the camaraderie of friends made the work enjoyable. Rest would come in intervals or when beds were sought in the evening.
Ranch life continued.
A Gila River Reunion
            There was no difference Friday when Walt and Bill came to town. Walt was looking for a flat bed trailer and found what he was looking for off I25 in Las Cruces. We gathered for lunch before they headed home. We wore our hats until the food arrived. It was then we honored our grandmothers and took them off.
            Our conversation was normal and customary. We all had fences to fix. There were details of slicks, tight bagged cows, lions sign, and horse idiosyncrasies. There was a new saddle being built, and history found its way into the conversation. It was reviewed and dissected. Our common roots encompass the Gila River. We wear it with a degree of kinship. It is symbolized in our bleached white limbs under our Wranglers and long sleeved shirts.
            Bill’s grandmother owned the Redrock store and post office that no longer exists. My great great grandfather had the same investment at Cliff. Both families were hammered by uncollected credit during the Depression. We all know about the flood of 1941 which washed Walt’s grandparents’ home away long before we were born. The LC’s “red barn” was the place where the all night dances occurred in the lower valley. Their grandparents courted and danced at those family gatherings. My grandmother and her family rode from the mouth of Dam Canyon to those dances only to ride home to do chores the next morning.
            I find that simply amazing. How they rode that Gila Box in the dark is beyond me, but they did. We considered the options of what they likely did, and each of them is incredibly difficult. Those dances were where my grandmother perfected her skill at waltzing and she loved it. She taught us to love it as well.
            When we were about to leave, we saw Hollis and Dot walking through the door in that customary fast walk holding hands. They had driven 175 miles from Mud Springs, and, there we were in the midst of the restaurant, greeting and hugging our friendship. For a few brief moments we talked about rain, pickup repairs, government regulation, and family.
Perhaps we created a bit of commotion to the patrons, but we didn’t notice. We shared our common lives. We are ranchers, and we believe when God created this world, He made man and woman and gave them two jobs … to cultivate this earth and fill it with respectful and capable children. In the process, he gave us tasks that create friendships and purpose.
We remain humbled to this life we live, and we believe that it has every right to continue.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “We all got our comments in to the Secretary on time, but our numbers are so few.”

No comments: