Monday, August 30, 2004

Ranch Life – Snake and Eggs

August 30, 2004 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Ranch life for a tenderfoot like myself was a constant learning experience… and some of those experiences were life-saving.

Like the time I tried to gather eggs in the barn after dark. I had reasoned that the chickens would be on their roost and all I had to do was gather their eggs for my breakfast. This was not necessarily always true.

I headed down to the barn with my flashlight. The batteries were always near failure; but did I let that bother me? Of course not! I carefully opened the door of the barn so as not to disturb the hens on their roost. I began my search for eggs among the many bales of hay near the back of the barn. At first the search was not too difficult, but after finding four or five eggs it became far more futile. I figured there would be at least eight eggs because we had eleven chickens in the barn. I believe there was only one rooster in the bunch.

I was probing between the bales of hay when I heard a distinct and recognizable rattle. My brain immediately registered “rattlesnake.”

Just at that moment the batteries in my flashlight began to falter; then completely failed, leaving me in the absolute ink-black darkness of the barn. Suddenly I realized I had made a big mistake. I should have had some new batteries on hand for the flashlight.

The four eggs in my lard bucket mattered not. My concern now was getting out of the barn without being snake bitten. I heard many notorious tales about the deadliness of these so called “wiggle-tails” from various old-time cowboys. Here I was with my “wiggle-tail” in close proximity to the middle of a dark barn looking for a safe way out. The “wiggle-tail” wasn’t one of Barkley’s friendly cow dogs either.

The rattler continued his annoying and fearsome display of alarm and warning. I wasn’t sure which one.

I wasn’t sure what the safe direction of retreat would be from the barn either. All I know was I wanted to [?? – word damaged on page], then run like hell. My intuition had told me to freeze. All the stories I had heard said the best thing to do when you can’t see a rattling rattlesnake is to freeze in your tracks and don’t move until you locate the snake. That was easier said than done.

I looked over my shoulder, without moving, at the starlight around the barn door. My eyes were slowly becoming accustomed to the dark. Thank goodness the door wasn’t a close fit. I couldn’t decide exactly how to get away from this aggravated rattlesnake. Should I jump? Should I run? Should I stay where I was until he crawled away?

Finally I made my decision. Stand fast, and don’t move! I continued to mess with my flashlight… and it finally came on with a very dim beam. I carefully shined the light around until I found the rattlesnake.

It was about eighteen inches from my leg and coiled to strike. I stood frozen in horror fearing the worst.

After several minutes the snake finally uncoiled and slowly began to crawl away. This four-foot Western Diamondback could have spoiled my otherwise wonderful day, and this tenderfoot cowboy had survived another day and learned another valuable lesson. Have new batteries on hand for the flashlight if [you’re] going to hunt chicken eggs in the barn after dark. Still, the next time I encountered a rattlesnake I wasn’t so lucky.

To this day I don’t know how I survived all my encounters with mishap while working at the Quarter Circle U Ranch. Actually I didn’t!

One early May morning Mike Finley and I were riding west of the ranch along a road looking for strays. We hadn’t found any, but the day was warming up very rapidly. The stifling heat convinced us we needed a break from the burning rays of the sun. We found shade under a large mesquite tree and decided to rest for a while. I tethered my horse to a small palo verde. We needed a cool drink of water, which we sipped from our canteens.

I was riding a somewhat greenbroke sorrel gelding. He didn’t appreciate me horsing him around, and he was difficult to mount and dismount. He always wanted to spin and jump to the side a little as you tried to step into the stirrup. Those who rode him didn’t appreciate his antics. Finally I was out of the saddle and had him tied beneath a palo verde tree a short distance from the mesquite we were resting under.

As we rested Mike noted my horse continued to act up beneath the palo verde. He pulled back on the lead rope that was holding him fast and was snorting. Finally I got up and walked over to the horse.

At the base of the palo verde there was a large brittlebrush. I carelessly reached down to loosen the lead rope. That was a mistake I would live to regret. Just as I grabbed the lead rope I heard a rattlesnake rattle and I then felt a burning sensation on my left hand between my index finger and thumb. I had been rattlesnake bitten.

At first I could feel a swell of fear rise in my body while edema settled in my hand. But, I untied the horse, got him away from the palo verde and the rattlesnake. The horse then settled down and was quite calm.

I mounted him and told Mike a rattlesnake had bitten me. His reaction was disbelief. He walked over to the palo verde and saw the three and a half-foot Western Diamondback slowly crawling away.

Once Mike realized I was bit we rode quickly back to the ranch house. He took our horses down to the barn and unsaddled them while I cleaned up for my trip to the hospital.

At first I didn’t think I would make a trip into the hospital, but within an hour my hand and arm were so swollen they were almost unrecognizable. I knew then that I would have to go to the hospital.

Fear really began to settle in as I watched the swelling continue up my arm to my shoulder. Finally I was getting a little short of breath, I had a heavy metallic taste in my mouth and my heart rate was up. Mike drove me into [San/Sand] Tank Restaurant. His hi-speed driving over Peralta Road scared me more than the snakebite.

Bob Calfee had a phone at [San/Sand] Tank and he called the sheriff’s office. However, before a deputy arrived a highway patrolman named Charlie Sharp drove up for a cup of coffee. Once the emergency was explained to him he drove me into the Southside Hospital in Mesa.

The crisis was almost over but I didn’t know it. I was one of the first snakebite victims in Arizona to be treated with anti-venom. I survived the snakebite and returned to work at the U Ranch three days later. I had a painful arm, but I was certainly wiser and more experienced.

An encounter with a rattlesnake can be a painful affair. Today such an experience can be extremely expensive. A friend’s “pet” rattlesnake bit him and before the medical expenses were over he had more than $15,000.00 in out-of-pocket expenses that his health insurance company would not cover. Health insurance doesn’t always cover ignorance.

I have always said there is no such thing as a “pet” rattlesnake. Common sense should prevail, but it doesn’t always.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Monday, August 16, 2004

Tenderfoot Ranch Cook

August 16, 2004 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Our lives are filled [with] many challenges, and preparing food for human consumption at the old Quarter Circle U Ranch almost fifty years ago was quite a challenge for a tenderfoot like myself.

This act was a constant learning experience that generally ended in failure or constant repetition of preparation with failure. Wow! Now that’s a mouthful of words. Our survival at the U Ranch was dependent on our ability to prepare food that was adequate for our meals, not necessarily for all humans. There was a considerable difference. My first cup of coffee just about killed the mouse that tried to sip it on the boarding room table.

My mother taught me how to boil water, fry an egg, scramble an egg, peel potatoes, fry potatoes, a hamburger or toast bread. Once I moved to the ranch I had to prepare all food on a wood-burning stove and propane gas hot plate. There wasn’t a cookbook in the ranch and no directions as to how to cook on a wood-burning stove. I knew I was a virgin cook awaiting disaster.

The first morning I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and prepared to feed the livestock before the day’s work begun. I was told to build a fire in the wood-burning stove before I fed the livestock. This act insured me a hot stove to cook on after feeding. Using the wood stove would also conserve on our limited supply of propane gas. I never forgot that first morning working in a rickety, rusty old sink filled with scorpions. The drain in the sink had three slots in it. These scorpions would run up through the slots then back down into the drainpipe. They soon made me painfully aware of their presence. First it was my thumb, then my little finger that got stung.

Tex Barkley had warned me of such inconveniences while preparing a meal in the kitchen. I slowly peeled some potatoes while nursing my burning appendages. I soon found out scorpion stings on the U Ranch were a common occurrence. Scorpions would get into your boots, into your clothing, and under the lid of [the] outside toilet. Do I have to explain what caution I used at the outside privy? Even though the stings were somewhat painful they were part of a cowboy’s life. Oh yes, I poured hot water down the pipe and other things to no real avail. Barkley wouldn’t allow me to call the local pest control company some fifty miles away in Phoenix.

Now, for that fire in the wood burning stove. I wouldn’t have minded this slight change in plans if all things had gone well. The problem was that nothing was going well that morning. Have you ever tried to get a fire going in a wood stove with the damper closed? I didn’t even know what a damper was let alone how it worked. I tried everything with the stove but couldn’t get things working correctly. Finally I resorted to [the] Coleman gasoline we used in our lanterns. This was a big mistake. It’s only a miracle that old U Ranch bunkhouse is still standing and Chuck Backus can enjoy it today.

Prideful about my stroke of genius with the Coleman fuel, I struck the match and touched off an explosion that rocked the kitchen. Suddenly I had fire everywhere, except where I needed it, in the stove. I ran outside and flames [were] shooting out the tin chimney. I was certain for a moment the ranch house was going to be history. I had used only a small cup of white gas on the wood in the stove. With both my eyebrows and the hair on my arms singed I had learned a valuable lesson about using Coleman fuel indoors.

There was another occasion when an “ignorant” cowboy tried to start a branding iron fire with Coleman fuel on a cold morning. He poured a large amount of white gas on some mesquite logs then fiddled around with his damp matches trying to ignite one. In the meantime the vapors of white gas had spread on the ground and gone up both pant legs. You can imagine his surprise when he finally ignited one of the matches and tossed it on the legs. He didn’t need to worry about hair on his legs for [a] couple of months.

Have you ever tried to advise a hardheaded cowpuncher? This was called “learning by experience.” By the time the branding iron fire was ready I knew the basic characteristics of Coleman fuel on a cold morning.

Nursing scorpion stings and singed eyebrows, I turned to the simplest form of cooking I understood. I turned on the two propane hot plate burners and placed two skillets on them. I peeled and sliced potatoes into one and fried bacon in the other. After the bacon was done I scrambled my eggs. Actually, in the end, I had an excellent breakfast considering the previous disasters.

Once my food was prepared I carried it into the front room of the ranch house and placed it on the big red boarding house table. I lit the Coleman lantern over the table. As I sat at the table and looked at the stars out the window I ate my first breakfast at the old Quarter Circle U Ranch. I was satisfied with my accomplishment, but there were many learning experiences ahead.

[Part 2, August 16, 2004]

As I stared out the window I could understand how an old cowboy could fall in love with such a place. The silence was deafening and darkness outside was as black as ink except for the twinkling of distant stars. Not a sound could be heard, but the occasional noise from the corral where one of the horse’s shoes came into contact with a stone while walking about. Suddenly the silence of the night was broken with the yip of a distant coyote. As I stared out the window at the heavens and I suddenly realized how insignificant I was in this wilderness. This isolation gave me the feeling of loneliness. Then one of Barkley’s cow dogs scratched at the door begging to get in. He smelled the bacon all the way down at the barn. I got up and walked over to the door and let him in. Now I wasn’t alone. I gave the cow dog what little leftovers there were.

Quickly I cleaned up the dishes and headed down to the barn and grained the horses. Barkley had instructed me to count the chickens every morning when I fed. I usually fed just at twilight. As I opened the cow barn door I could see the chickens all roosting on a rack above the hay. We still had fourteen chickens and no coyote, fox, or other [varmint] had chicken on his menu the night before. In the days ahead I would be at war with the wildlife that wanted to deprive me of the chickens or their eggs, a real commodity in this desert wilderness. 

When Barkley left food for a month it included flour, [a] wheel of longhorn cheese, [a] slab of bacon, pinto beans, [a] case of canned peaches, twenty pounds of potatoes, a large piece of beef, six large bags of elbow macaroni, one pound of coffee and a large bag of red chili. Barkley was known for feeding his men well, but most of what he left required “making from scratch.”

Each morning after feeding I would gather the eggs. Usually I would gather six to eight eggs, if I could find them. It was common to find both harmless and poisonous snakes in the barn that had journeyed there in search of food. Usually the snakes were looking for eggs. This particular day I was free of such danger. The future would bring encounters with large rattlesnakes.

After the day’s chores were done, I would feed about sundown and then return to the ranch house to once again prepare a meal. I cooked a lot of pinto beans. First I would pour three to four large cups out on the big red table in the front room and sort through them eliminating any stones or debris. Then I would wash them carefully, then let them soak overnight. I would start the bean cooking process the next morning by sitting them on the propane hot plate. I would let them cook for an hour then turn them off. Barkley had warned me about always putting a heavy rock on the bean pot lid when the beans were sitting on the stove and especially after they were done. He often would laugh and say, “It will hold in the gas generated by the beans.”

I thought this was quite peculiar, but I soon learned why you place a rock on the bean pot lid. If you have ever lifted the lid on your bean pot and found a dead mouse looking you in the eye you would fully understand the purpose of the heavy rock on the lid… and it wasn’t for keeping the gas on the beans.

Cooking on the wood stove would be a skill I would sooner or later have to master if I was going to work on a small cattle spread. Learning to cook properly meant survival to a young tenderfoot such as myself. After a few months I was quite proficient with the wood stove. I learned to start it properly, knew what the damper was all about and how to use the oven to bake biscuits. Oh, biscuits are another story on the Quarter Circle U Ranch in Pinal County.

I will never forget the first morning I tried to bake my first pan of biscuits. I didn’t have a convenient store-bought box [of] biscuit mix. I made my batter from scratch. I mixed white flour, water, a dash of salt, half a cup of powdered milk, and two cups of water. I mixed up the dough and added a little bacon lard. Once the batter was mixed well I rolled it out flat. Let it sit for a while and used a small can for a cutter. Once the biscuits were cut I placed them on a thin sheet and then in the oven at about 300 degrees and cooked them for 15 to 20 minutes.

The first biscuits were not good. As a matter of fact, as soon as they cooled they were as hard as rocks. Even the cow dogs wouldn’t eat them. I found out what baking soda was used for. Pretty soon I was producing pretty good biscuits.

I survived food preparation on the old Quarter Circle U Ranch. Evidenced by the fact that I’m still here. Working on the Quarter Circle U Ranch was a tough and sometimes dangerous experience, but it certainly had its rewards. I enjoyed the beautiful slopes of the Superstition Mountains free of development and almost virgin. To be honest I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything. It made me a better person. I learned to respect my fellow man, animals and the environment. I choose to believe all things could live in harmony.

I hope so.