September 19, 2011 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.
I must admit my cowboy days made a man out me. Someone my father and mother could be proud of and count on. When I worked on the Quarter Circle U Ranch and a couple of other small ranches I realized I was finally on my own. My teacher for the most part was experience. No self-respecting cowboy-to-be would want to admit he didn’t know a cinch from a cinch ring. Often my teachers were far and few between.
Many of these cowboys often didn’t know anymore than I did. Those who knew more didn’t particularly want to share their coveted knowledge with an untested hand. I just wasn’t a part of the fold.
My knowledge was gained through experience. Experience that often would put my life in peril. In one year I had ten encounters and any one of them could have cost me my life.
Rattlesnakes, rank bulls, mother cows, crazy broncos, barbwire, Cholla, windmills, gun-happy fools, intoxicated drivers, intoxicated cowboys, mine shafts, flash floods, dynamite, and lightning all tried to end my cowboy experience at one time or another during my employment on the Barkley’s Quarter Circle U Ranch. Today, I cherish those close calls as part of life’s experiences. I am not sure I should, but the bravado of yesteryear is the memories of today.
Life without peril on an Arizona cattle ranch in the 1950’s was non-existent. With this in mind, I think about my first encounter with Cholla cactus (also called jumping cactus). Bill Barkley, the boss man for the Quarter Circle U Ranch, had asked Mike Finley and I to check on some calves over in Tule Canyon south of the headquarters ranch. Mike saddled ‘Scooter’ and I saddled a horse named ‘Pee Wee,’ better known to cowboys as ‘Spook.’ A gentle horse he was not!
We rode out about 5 a.m. to the sound of Cactus wrens and White-Wing doves. It was just twilight. The eastern sky had just begun to turn a light yellow.
The morning sunrise was beautiful as the rays of light filtered down on the giant Saguaro cactus in Barkley Basin south of Miner’s Needle. We could hear the mournful call of a distant coyote and the first of the early sounds of a late spring morning. Early morning had presented us a beautiful day for a ride.
It seems I always drew the spooky and wild-eyed horses. Pee Wee was no exception. Pee Wee would crow-hop or buck just depending on the atmospheric conditions. Like I said, I learned from experience.
“Keep a tight rein on that spooky broomtail, Tom,” called out Mike as we rode through an open gate. I often wondered why Mike wasn’t riding Pee Wee. He was much more experienced around horses than I was. It wasn’t long before I understood why Mike wouldn’t ride Pee Wee. I soon found out a cowboy doesn’t ride anything any ranker than required to get the job done. Soon I realized I was in the school of hard knocks. Most of the knocks were on me.
Mike and I rode through a saddle that separated Barkley’s Basin and Tule Basin. It wasn’t long before we spotted the calves Barkley wanted us to check out. Most of the calves ignored us except for a mule-eared small black steer. He must have thought he had balls. He put his head down and charged our two mounts. The little son-of-gun couldn’t have weighted more than four hundred pounds.
Scooter jumped to the right, while Pee Wee broke in the middle. His first jump had unseated me from the saddle. I was still on his back, but not in control. Pee Wee’s next move was a spinning crowhop. On the second spin he found a large Cholla and planted my body on it.
Cholla balls covered most of Pee Wee’s right side from his neck to his flank. I had Cholla balls from my shoulder to the top of my boot. The pain was excruciating. My whole right side felt like it was on fire. Fear filled my mind. I expected Pee Wee to break and go crazy. He didn’t! He just stood there in one spot and shivered from shock.
This brief moment in time provided me an opportunity to step to the ground and out of the saddle. I collapsed on the ground in shock. Mike climbed off Scooter and rushed to my side. When he saw all the Cholla in me he thought I was a goner.
“Just lay there Tom, I’ve got to take care of the horses.” Mike said calmly.
“Horses, hell,” I thought. Mike had his comb out flicking Cholla balls out of Pee Wee. Each time he flicked a Cholla ball off of Pee Wee the horse jumped three feet. On several occasions Pee Wee landed on one of Mike’s toes. Each time that happened I cheered while tolerating enormous pain.
Half delirious, I finally heard Mike say, “Well it is your turn cowboy!” I guess Mike had finally decided I was going to live. I had never felt such pain in my life. Mike started plucking Cholla balls out of my hide slowly at first. He would say one, two, three, and on and on. Finally, after seventy-three Cholla balls, Mike had removed them all.
I had finally got over the initial shock. My shirt was still stuck to my skin. My chaps and Levis were even worst. I was one miserable amateur cowboy. At that moment in time, I was ready to hang up my spurs.
When Mike reported the whole affair to Barkley he was more concerned about the damn horses than me. I could be replaced for seventy-five bucks a month, board and room. A good cow pony cost three hundred dollars in those days and required several years of training.
Barkley said, “You know Slim, one of my cow dogs is worth five good cowboys.”
This greenhorn cowboy found no sympathy that day. An inexperienced cowboy sure didn’t rate much with Barkley. I was in such pain that day it really didn’t matter. Mike treated my wounds with Aloe Vera. I was laid up for than a week. My entire right side appeared as if it had been hit with bird shot from a shot gun. My introduction to Cholla was overkill.
The Barkleys tolerated the Cholla cactus on their range because it was an important source of feed for their cattle. I eventually got my revenge on the Cholla cactus. I burned the thorns off many acres of the cactus with a propane burner. When I burned Cholla the cattle would come from all over the pasture to feed on it. Each time I fired up the propane burner I was extracting my revenge for my ride through the Cholla on Pee Wee.