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Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwestby Sandra Day O'Connor and H. Alan Day
When Time, who steals our years away, Shall steal our pleasure, too, The Memory of the past will stay, And half our joys renew.
-Thomas Moore, "Song"
The earliest memory is of sounds. In a place of all-encompassing silence, any sound is something to be noted and remembered. When the wind is not blowing, it is so quiet you can hear a beetle scurrying across the ground or a fly landing on a bush. Occasionally an airplane flies overhead-a high-tech intrusion penetrating the agrarian peace.
When the wind blows, as it often does, there are no trees to rustle and moan. But the wind whistles through any loose siding on the barn and causes any loose gate to bang into the fence post. It starts the windmills moving, turning, creaking.
At night the sounds are magnified. Coyotes wail on the hillside, calling to each other or to the moon-a sound that sends chills up the spine. We snuggle deeper in our beds. What prey have the coyotes spotted? Why are they howling? What are they doing? Just before dawn the doves begin to call, with a soft cooing sound, starting the day with their endless search for food. The cattle nearby walk along their trail near the house, their hooves crunching on the gravel. An occasional moo to a calf or to another cow can be heard, or the urgent bawl of a calf that has lost contact with its mother, or the low insistent grunt, almost a growl, of a bull as it walks steadily along to the watering trough or back out to the pasture. The two huge windmills turn in the wind, creaking as they revolve to face the breeze, and producing the clank of the sucker rods as they rise and fall with each turn of the huge fan of the mill.
The Lazy B Ranch straddles the border of Arizona and New Mexico along the Gila River. It is high desert country-dry, windswept, clear, often cloudless. Along the Gila the canyons are choked with cottonwoods and willows. The cliffs rise up sharply and are smooth beige sandstone. The water flowing down the riverbed from the Gila Wilderness to the northeast is usually only a trickle. But sometimes, after summer rains or a winter thaw in the mountains, the river becomes an angry, rushing, mud-colored flood, carrying trees, brush, rocks, and everything else in its path. Scraped into the sandstone bluffs are petroglyphs of the Anasazi of centuries past. Their lives and hardships left these visible traces for us to find, and we marvel at their ability to survive as long as they did in this harsh environment. High up on one of the canyon walls is a small opening to a cave. A few ancient steps are cut out of the bluff leading to it. To reach it now requires climbing apparatus-ropes and pitons. The cave's inner walls have been smoothed with mud plaster, and here and there is a handprint, hardened when the mud dried, centuries ago.
Every living thing in the desert has some kind of protective mechanism or characteristic to survive-thorns, teeth, horns, poison, or perhaps just being too tough to kill and eat. A human living there quickly learns that anything in the desert can hurt you if you are not careful and respectful. Whatever it is can scratch you, bite you, or puncture you. When riding horseback, you have to watch where you are going. The branch of a hardy bush can knock you off; a hole in the ground covered with grass can cause your horse to stumble or fall. When you take a spill, it might be onto a rock or a cactus. When you get off your horse, it pays to look first to avoid stepping in an ant den, on a scorpion, or in the path of a snake. Over the years, Alan, Ann, and I each had our share of falls from a horse, insect bites, injuries, and other dangerous events, which we learned just came with the territory.
South of the Gila and to the east, the land is flat. For some ten miles it is covered with short burro grass and hummocks of tabosa grass. There are soapweeds-tall, hairy-looking yuccas, some with two or three trunks. In May they send up tall stalks with clusters of off-white blossoms that last about a month. These dramatic sentinels in the flat landscape are weirdly beautiful. The stalks, when dry, make good cattle prods, or fine lances for children's war games. The dry pods from the blossoms are good additions in dried-flower arrangements.
The mesa land is part of a large dry lake bed from an earlier time. It is hard to imagine this land covered with water. Places along the edge of it show signs of Indian camps. As children, we found many buff-colored pottery shards, an occasional metate, or grindstone, sometimes a projectile point or pieces of obsidian that had been flaked off in the process of making the projectiles. I would spend the hours waiting for DA to finish some work in that area looking around for some of these bits of Indian life and times. I would take them home to show MO, who greatly enjoyed finding such treasures. We would talk about the lives these early inhabitants led.
Water was scarce and hard to find. Every drop counted. We built catchment basins and dirt tanks to catch and store it. We pumped it from underground. We measured it and used it sparingly. Life depended on it.
There were thirty-five wells and windmills on the Lazy B, and it was a big job to keep them pumping. The windmills and pumps had to be oiled and serviced regularly. During periods of drought and dry weather-periods that seemed to predominate-the ranch crew spent most of their time keeping the wells working and hauling supplemental feed to the cattle. When a well went bad or a pump broke down, it was a serious matter. There might be only a day's supply of water in reserve in that area. The cattle could not survive more than a day of dehydration. There were times when we had to work through the night to try to get the well or pump repaired, to supply the livestock with water.
I recall some grim, difficult times when DA and the cowboys would have to stop all other work to repair a well that had ceased producing water for the cattle. Work would begin at daylight and continue into the night. Sometimes the sucker rods had to be pulled out of the well and removed, one at a time, until the problem was located and solved. It could be a broken sucker rod deep in the well. It could be a corroded casing pipe that was allowing water to escape. It could be any number of things that took strength, time, skill, and energy to repair. There was little I could do to help. The work required more strength than I had. I could serve like an operating-room nurse-I would get a wrench, a hammer, or another tool that was needed and put it into my father's outstretched hand. More often, I read a book I had brought along or I watched the work and engaged in desultory conversation with the men.
If we failed to complete the repairs before the water tank was empty, we had to gather all the cattle and move them to another location where there was enough water and grass for them to survive.
The east part of the Lazy B is on the Lordsburg Flat-a large, flat, desolate area that is not the best grazing land on the ranch. The underground water is about three hundred feet deep and in places does not taste very good, but the older wells in that area all have splendid wooden windmill towers over them. In the 1920s a master craftsman constructed these towers on the site, with beautiful, long, straight timbers all cut by hand and mitered to fit, and they have weathered over the years to a soft gray color.
Some of the names of these watering places are colorful and descriptive. In the east part of the ranch is Z-Bar-L. It was named for the brand MO put on her cattle. The brand had no significance; it is just a brand DA had registered at an earlier time. A few miles away from there is Three Mills, named for the three windmills around the big water pond that served the cattle. When the first well was drilled, it was so weak and produced so little water that two more wells were drilled to supply enough water for the cattle. Wimp Well was named after the scrubby old fellow who drilled it. High Lonesome is the most descriptive name on the ranch. It stands alone as a sentinel over a a large, bare prairie that is roughly on the Continental Divide. When you are there, you can feel that High Lonesome is the proper name. Willow Springs is a shallow well located in a beautiful, narrow, rocky canyon. This is the prettiest location on the ranch.
The ranch headquarters is named Round Mountain, for the perfectly round volcanic cone that rises six hundred feet above the prairie about a mile south of headquarters. Round Mountain is visible from almost anyplace on the ranch and appears on many air-travel maps. Cottonwood Spring is a flowing spring surrounded by large cottonwood trees located in the northeast part of the ranch, near the Gila River. We particularly enjoyed going to Cottonwood Spring; to see water seeping out of the ground was always a miraculous sight in that dry land. The cottonwood trees provided shade, and the canyon, with its steep, colorful walls, was cooler than the surrounding mesas. I could never resist digging in the sandy canyon floor until a pool of water would fill the hole. I also always scoured the canyon walls to try to find petroglyphs etched in the stone. The early Indians who made them left symbols of animal and bird life that have lasted thousands of years.
At eight hundred feet, Lost Lake is the deepest well on the ranch, located adjacent to a dry lake formed by drainage coming out of the mountains that surround it on all four sides. The dry lake bed would sometimes fill with floodwater in the monsoon season. The water flowing in would be brown, muddy, and full of leaves, sticks, debris, and foam from the flash flood. As the water receded over the succeeding weeks, it would leave wide areas of a coating of slippery mud. The cattle would walk through the mud to reach the remaining water, and their legs and even their bellies would have a coating of dried mud on them for months.
Sands Ranch, also a part of the Lazy B, is eight miles south of Lost Lake and was once the homestead of John Sands. He and his son Tom ran goats on this little ranch, but their main income was from the bootleg whiskey they made there. During Prohibition John and Tom took a wagonload of whiskey to Bowie to sell. They made the mistake of selling a gallon to a federal agent who was there to control bootlegging. When the agent attempted to arrest them, John pulled out his pistol and tried to shoot the gallon out of the agent's hand. John was killed in the shoot-out and Tom was shot in the arm. Tom's arm shriveled, and he could never use it again. His heart was no longer at the ranch, so he sold it to the Lazy B. The ranch hands dug a forty-foot-deep well on his land, and that area has always been known as Sands Ranch.
Robbs' Well is up the canyon about five miles east of Sands Ranch and was homesteaded by Fred Robbs. He was unable to make a living on this tough piece of land, but the well he drilled and the old wood shack next to it have always remained as Robbs' Well.
Antelope Well was drilled when Ann was about eight years old. When DA decided to drill a well in that area, he took Ann with him the day he went out to choose a site; the well got its name from a little herd of antelope they saw on the way. DA had brought a green willow limb with them, and he got Ann to "witch" the well with the willow limb. Some people are said to be able to locate underground water by holding a forked willow branch or a peach-tree branch over the area. When the branch pulls down, it indicates that water is below the surface. There was some question about whether they could hit water or not, since several wells had already been drilled in the area-all dry. At the place Ann selected, they ended up drilling through hard rock. During the drilling, the driller came to DA twice to ask for more money per foot for boring through such hard rock. With so much already invested, DA reluctantly agreed. At five hundred feet, they hit a good stream of water. Developing reliable sources of water and keeping all the wells, windmills, and pumps operative was a major part of the work at the Lazy B.
It is possible to survive and even make a living in that formidable terrain. The Day family did it for years; but it was never easy. It takes planning, patience, skill, and endurance. DA said he had to plan for the lean years and the low cattle prices, because there were so few years when there was plenty of rain and a good market for the cattle as well.
From the Hardcover edition.
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