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Two cowboys while away a 1930s winter

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Winter Camp

Two cowboys while away a 1930s winter–playing cards, ropin' badgers and riding far and wide for a "woman-cooked meal."

By Allton Turner

 

Editor's note: Readers who enjoyed the reminiscence of "One Cowboy Christmas" in our December issue will be pleased to know that we have a second recollection 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 who 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. Allton Turner died in 1980, but left a legacy of manuscripts that his son, Don Turner of Silver City, brought to our attention. It included the following, published–as far as we know–for the first time here.

 

Marvin Glenn and I spent one winter in the Thirties at "Trinity," looking after the cattle, watching the waters, keeping salt out, feeding a few of the poorer ones. This was the middle outfit of the EZ Bar ranch. It was so named for its three-cornered layout, where the cattle could spend their allotted time in a group for company and mutual protection from coyotes, wolves and weird night sounds. It was about halfway between Whitewater on the Santa Fe railroad and Gage on the Southern Pacific.

The author on Yellowjacket at the EZ Bar Ranch
near Whitewater, NM.

Once in a while we'd ride over to Cow Springs, the Diamond A ranch headquarters, for a woman-cooked meal. Mrs. John Dawson, the foreman's wife, was always glad to feed us. Ranchers didn't have much company in those days, especially in the winter.

The boss had crossed about 300 three- and four-year-old Mexican steers over the border that winter. They'd been starved, both to beat the duty-weight down and because they just didn't have enough to eat wherever they came from or they had been kept up too long off what little feed there was. After they'd stoutened up enough, we de-horned them so they would bring a better price for the buyers who would ship them to feed yards or permanent pasture. It was such a mild winter for a while that a lot of them got worms in their heads where we'd sawed their horns off. I made the remark a time or two, when we'd scoop about a cupful of worms out of a steer's head, that they'd sure make good stew. Our bachelor cooking wasn't too good at best, but Marvin couldn't even eat that for thinking of that worm stew I'd mentioned.

We both usually cooked supper after dark, but took turns cooking breakfast while the other wrangled horses. We had the same menu for breakfast that we did for supper–steak, potatoes and biscuits. Sometimes we had bacon or ham for breakfast, but not often. We usually had gravy, too, and "lick," a near-molasses that was the Blue Label B'r Rabbit brand. We couldn't get this particular syrup very often at the Whitewater store where the EZ Bar did most of its trading. The storekeeper said he wouldn't bother to stock it because he couldn't keep it on his shelves–sold it right out near as fast as he got it in. Once in a while we'd stew up a pot of prunes or dried apricots or peaches, but sugar was pretty hard to come by and keep from the ants. I tried making a pie a time or two, but neither of us could masticate it. It'd lay around camp a few days and we'd throw it out to the varmints that'd eat 'most anything, but not my pies. Even the crows and jays left those pies alone.

We made one circle down between Gage and Deming to see the group of nurses from Ft. Bliss who had homesteaded down there. (The ranchers would get these nurses and servicemen to homestead a section of land, build their improvements for them–the amount of service time they had in would count towards the three-year proving-up time on their 640 acres of homestead. You couldn't run over eight or 10 head of cattle on 640 acres in that kind of country, but then the ranchers would buy them out for about $3.50 per acre. A lot of pretty good-sized ranches were built up that way). A couple of those nurses invited us to eat with them. I imagine they were as glad to have a little male company for a change as we were to hear a woman's voice again. They fed a lot different than ranch women. It didn't stick to a man's ribs like ranch chuck, but it was sure tasty. One of those nurses was from New York and fed us some stuff we'd never heard of before and haven't since. I'd still like to know what it really was.

After visiting a while, we took our leave and headed for the O Bar O, way down by Black Mountain, north of Deming. Margaret Williams and her mother really spread a feed that was good enough for a courtin' meal, but neither of us ever had a chance to go back for courtin' or another meal. I did see Margaret a few times later in Deming when she was county clerk, even took her to a dance at Gage once.

Marvin wound up ranching down on Cameron Creek, a couple of miles west of the Silver City-Grant County airport. He married a good cook, Ethel Criswell, daughter of Harve who branded Spear A, or Spike A, some called it. Marvin made many a moonlight ride a-courtin' Ethel and finally slipped up on her in a weak moment long enough to wed with her.

 

One of the longest rides Marvin and I made for a woman-cooked meal was about four or five hours. We had plenty of saddle horses and kept a couple of "country-covering" ponies for our chuck-line riding. They didn't have much cow savvy, but they could sure put the miles behind them, especially when we pushed them extra hard to make meal-time.

The Bruce Wilsons had sent us word to come over for New Year's dinner. We lit a shuck soon after sunup to get in some jawin' and maybe camp ride and rope a few wiold ones. On the way over Marvin roped a badger. (In those days he and I nearly always had a loop ready to spill at anything that moved and maybe it didn't have to move). If you've never roped a badger, it's about time you tried it. They're so pudgy and hairy that it's hard to draw a loop up on one, but if you do and it gets in its hole, you're in trouble. There's an old cowboy saying that there ain't a horse or rope stout enough to pull a badger out of his hole. I never did try one of the new nylon ropes; they came out after I quit riding the range and roping badgers.

And it isn't easy to grab ahold of a badger to get a saddle rope off. Those long-digging claws can rip a man's hand wide open right quick and those teeth can easily sink through the toughest glove leather. So, I decided to shoot that little booger–but Marvin had a new rope and they weren't easy to come by on $30 a month and found ("found" means board and room, but to a cowboy it was chuck and a bedroll). Marvin knew I was pretty accurate with that 32-20 on a .45 frame and he insisted I was aiming for his new rope to shoot it in two. He was begging for me to not shoot his new rope.

I was lucky enough to shoot that badger between the eyes and not even nick his new rope. The best way to get a badger out of his hole is to wind a forked stick or piece of barbed wire up in the hair near his belly and he'll fold up to fight that and can't brace himself on the sides of his hole. I've tried several times to build a cage to hold a badger, but they'd bend any bars I could rig up and squeeze out before the first night was over, or chew through any wood I might have built the cage with.

 

When Marvin and I got back to the EZ Bar ranch headquarters that spring for the calf roundup, the boss had bought a bunch of saddle horses from the late Dewey Benedict. Dewey called them saddle horses, but I've won money in the saddle-bronc contest in rodeos that couldn't buck in the shade of one of Dewey's "old gentle saddle ponies." Marvin and I took turns trying them out. Marvin drew a big gray called High Lonesome. Marvin rode him, but he really knew he'd been to a bronc ride. I tried him next day and found out why he was called "High Lonesome"–he bucked so high it sure got lonesome up there all by myself and it seemed like I had time to roll a cigarette between jumps, even if I didn't ride smooth enough to do so.

That was the spring that 19 cowboys saddled up for the morning's drive and there were 14 loose horses inside of 10 minutes. I was riding a pretty spooky horse, but was going to rope a loose horse as he went by me after throwing his rider. I missed his head, but caught the saddle horn. My horse went to pitching and got jerked down, out from under me. Now we had two tied together and it's a little dangerous to stop a couple of half-broke, stampeding ponies tied together. You might grab ahold of one, but somebody's got to grab the other about the same time or you're no better off, maybe worse, with three horses together rather than two.

We were usually too tired of an evening to sit up long. After about 15 hours in the saddle, breaking broncs, fixing fence and greasing windmills or pumping water, we didn't need to be rocked to sleep. We'd study the saddle and boot catalogs until we had 'em memorized and read some of those "shoot-'em-up-Dick" Westerns by the light of a coal oil lamp. We'd take turns cranking the old Victrola and about wore those few records out memorizing the words to most of 'em. Marvin could sing pretty fair, but the dogs and coyotes would howl and the cattle would stampede when I'd bust loose in song. (My oldest boy would clamp his hands over his ears when I bust into song on the way to a rodeo. He was only three or four years old then, and "out of the mouths of babes the truth shall be heard.")

Marvin and I played so much pitch and cooncan that winter that we wore the spots off the playing cards. We could hardly tell one card from another and had to mark over them with a pencil.

Marvin got a little disturbed when we were camped in a snake country. One night I came in off guard at midnight to awaken Marvin for his turn at night guard. On my way to his bed, I went by the chuck wagon and cut a strip of fresh beef off a quarter hanging there. It was about the size of my finger and about 10 inches long. When Marvin struggled awake at my shaking, he groped for his boots. He slipped one on and started for the other when he felt that snake-like piece of beef. He knew durned well it was a snake that had crawled into his boot. He threw that boot as far as he could and uttered some words that might not fit in Sunday school. Since he couldn't find that boot in the dark (and didn't much want it, anyway) he spent his two hours on night guard with only one boot on.

 

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