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One Cow Country Christmas

Remembering when Christmas on the ranch meant eggnog and not much else–except a day of cowboy hijinx.

By Allton Turner


Editor's note: As a special holiday gift for readers, we're pleased to publish this reminiscence of ranch life written by Allton Turner. Born in 1910 in Santa Rita and raised on a ranch, Turner was a cowboy and rodeo rider at a time when Hurley was one of the most challenging stops on the national rodeo circuit. Beginning as sports editor of the student newspaper at Colorado State in the 1930s, Turner also enjoyed a prolific writing career. He covered the area rodeo scene as well as writing more personal accounts of ranch life in Southwest New Mexico in the hardscrabble 1930s and later. Turner's work was published locally as well as in national publications including The Western Horseman and True West. He later worked in the mines and operated Turner Electric, which many longtime residents will recall. Allton Turner died in 1980, but left a legacy of manuscripts that his son, Don Turner of Silver City, recently began digging through with thoughts of collecting them into a book. When Don asked us to take a look, we thought this tale particularly appropriate for the season. Another, recalling the rigors of "winter camp," will be published in these pages in early 2007.


On Christmas Day 1931 the boss of the E Z Bar let us sleep 'til sunup. Any other time it was just unheard of for the sun to catch a feller in his soogans–or the sun might set fire to them with someone in them.

The author on a 1933 Christmas card from the EZ Bar Ranch.

Chores were the same even at Christmas on this Southwestern New Mexico cattle ranch. Someone had to milk the cows, probably four or five of them, as these "selected" range cows didn't give over a half-gallon of milk and their calves had to have some, probably the richest or last part. Someone else wrangled the saddle horses, because there was always a little something to do around a ranch, even on Christmas Day. A few of the boys would tend the hospital bunch of cattle, those too weak to make it on their own on the range. A couple of cowhands would cake the bulls that had been gathered the fall before and kept to themselves until spring breeding season.

While the rest of us were hurrying through our chores, one or two cowpunchers were cooking gravy and hot biscuits, but that meal didn't get too much attention. My older sister had made a washtub full of eggnog, and we got to sampling it before the sun was an hour high. Now, this was still during Prohibition, but a little spirits had been scrounged here and there by different ones to liven up the mixture in the washtub. I know I "found" my fruit jar of tiger juice at the base of a soapweed about eight miles to the west and "dropped" a couple frogskins (dollars) under a rock where the jar had been. There was no sale of liquor. The fruit jar just happened to be there and those two bucks got out of my pocket and under that rock. I never saw a soul, let alone spoke to anyone during these happenings.

Some of the other cowboys must have "found" a few jugs of spirits somewhere or another, too, because that washtub of mix soon got a little stout. It took the women folk a week or more to save enough eggs (because hens don't lay as much in the winter) and milk. So, maybe that's how the mixin' got a little strong, as each one of us livened it up a bit. At first, we were a little cagey about adding "just a bit more" juice, but, pretty soon the dollops got more hearty.

Somehow the cows got milked, the bulls fed, the weak cattle tended to and the saddle horses jingled. We opened our few Christmas presents, for 1931 was a hard year in the cattle business. Prices were down, range conditions poor and the calf crop skimpy. We'd heard about a stock market crash on a place called Wall Street in the fall of '29, but it didn't hit the cattle business for a couple of years.


It just kinda comes natural for a bunch of cowboys to think and talk about "ropin' riding" any time and more so when they get a little or lot of bravemaker in their systems. There are wilder bronc rides and faster roping done on a tub of eggnog and so forth than were ever seen on the range or in the rodeo arena.

Along about nine o'clock in the morning, most of the cowboys disappeared from the ranch house and corrals for a couple of hours. Then, 25 or 30 head of wild range horses "just happened" to get into the big water lot south of the barn, and several barren cows and big steers "wandered" in for water. Even a few cows and calves "happened" to come in for water earlier than usual. And another washtub of eggnog found its way to the barn about 100 yards from the ranch house. Some of the cowboys happened to find another jug or two in the haystack and the contents just spilled into the wash tub–lucky it didn't get spilled onto the ground and wasted.

As usual, we got to talking about various rough bucking horses and someone mentioned a few there on the ranch. One of these was a little bay horse called Buster. Gerald Bond, the E Z Bar range boss at that time, said that Buster wasn't so much, that he could even ride old Buster backwards. So Carl Wilson promptly gathered up a catch rope and flipped a loop on that little old pony's neck. We put the saddle on hind-end in-front and buckled it down. It was a little awkward for Gerald to mount this way, but some of us eared Buster down to where he couldn't move 'til Gerald screwed down tight.

I'll have to give Gerald credit for staying aboard old Buster, but by the time Buster got through bucking, Gerald was a little shook and required more liquid reviver. That ride was known ever after as the "eggnog ride."


As the milk and eggs ran short, the panther juice flowed a little more freely until it didn't even get into the wash tub. That brought on more bronc rides, cow and steer rides and roping that only a bunch of "loosened-up" cowboys can dream up.

First we all rode broncs different ways and rested awhile around the nog. Then we rode a few cows and steers–one town feller was riding with us, having gotten the riding spirit from the same tub. He rode just fine until that cow began to bawl. Guess that unnerved him, because he just fell off. 'Course, we were riding "slick," without a surcingle, maybe a tail hold.

Next we decided to have a little contest of bronc riding and calf roping. My parents, Mr. and Mrs. John W. Turner, owners of the E Z Bar, and my sister, Nina, were selected as judges because they all enjoyed cowboy sports and knew the score.

I think I pulled up second in the bronc riding–can't remember for sure–on a horse called Flaxy because of his flaxen mane and tail. Flaxy was a good cow horse and pretty fair roping horse, so my ego-maker had me rope my calf on this horse I'd just used in the bucking contest.

We had no rodeo arena in those days, but just turned our stock out the corral gate and bucked our horses and roped our calves out in front of the main ranch house. Just as I leaned over to rope my calf and jerked the slack, old Flaxy bogged his head and I went on over his head and lit astraddle of my catch rope just as the calf hit the end of it. I slid right onto my calf, scorched my britches, but, in the process of getting unstraddled from the rope, I hung my wristwatch somewhere and it flew all apart. The razzing I got from my daddy and the cowboys about wearing a sissy wristwatch was something else.

I went ahead and tied my calf, as that was what I had on my single-track mind all the time, but got everyone into hunting the parts of that watch for reassembling. And, by golly, these fellers on their all-fours found all the parts except the secondhand. I didn't need it anyway.

We scratched that ground for several feet around better than a bunch of hens with little chicks in a sandbed hunting maize.

Christmas just ain't Christmas no more without a wash tub or two of stout eggnog for ropin' and ridin'.


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