Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Roundup on the Quien Sabe and a Sad Goodbye

As we rode through the fence that surrounded Rooster Falcon’s home, Calvin told me we would be rounding up cattle in a 3600 acre pasture. The cattle were mostly Charolais and Herefords, purebred and crossbred. We all broke into a long trot with Calvin leading. My horse knew the drill.  

Cholla (pronounced Choya), plants that look like Yucca cactus, gramma grass, and purple sage were prominent.  We paused at regular intervals to drop off one or two riders to start sweeping the pasture.  I stayed with Calvin. As we passed pastures with sixteen foot fences, Calvin said they called that area the zoo. The ranch owner wanted to raise exotic animals for hunting, but he said they eventually became coyote bait. 

He spotted a lone cow off to our right on a tall ridge and rode almost out of sight to move it in the right direction.  Lightning streaked the sky on the horizon and the weather turned cool. The wind gusted to about forty MPH. I was pleased when my Panama with the self adjusting band stayed on. Calvin’s big palm leaf brim bent with the wind, but didn’t blow off.

I was humbled, almost awed as I stayed put and watched Calvin ride his horse to a rock ridge for a better look at the roundup progress. I was unsure how the pasture lay or where the fences were, since none were in sight and the cattle did not seem to naturally herd. I was surprised at how scattered they were.

I finally got a sense of things as the cowboys pulled them together against a north fence and pushed them toward the corrals.  When they were penned, the cowboys separated seven bulls first (one bull for 14 cows or 7 to 100) then about thirty dry cows. I helped a little with this, but most of it was handled by cowboys who wanted to get their horses work in the herd as well as test their own skills.  Each man politely asked Calvin’s permission to work a new horse.

Calvin pulled a new Chevy 3/4 ton truck into an adjoining corral.  Pairs (70) were than herded into this smaller pen.  The pickup rocked as the cows pushed against it.  Two cowboys rode into the pen and starting pushing them toward the gate.  Rooster flagged off the calves using his chinks.  If he missed one, two cowboys on horseback stopped the calves and pushed them back inside. 

With the calves separated, Rooster fired up a propane blower and put five branding irons into an iron bucket.  He heated them with propane flame. When the irons were ready, two cowboys started roping and dragging. 

All the cattle were branded, ear-notched, dehorned, (if required) and vaccinated for blackleg under their left shoulder. Bulls were castrated and given a penicillin shot. Testicles were dropped into a bucket for later cooking.  About twenty pair.  Then all cattle were sprayed using the rig Calvin had been filling when I drove up the previous day. 

We were done by 11 A.M. Back at Rooster’s house, his valiant wife was ready with buffalo steak strips, garden salad, mashed potatoes, toast, gravy, iced tea and gelatin dessert. Incredible.  

After lunch, we unhooked from the sprayer and headed back to headquarters with three horses in old open-topped trailer.  I was filled with gratitude for the experience afforded me and gushed with admiration for the life Calvin had made for himself and his family.

I asked more questions about the ranch and its history. Calvin said that the ranch real estate alone was worth about $250 per acre at the time of the elder Fulton’s death. The ranch was about 150,000 acres back then ($37.5 million), but the son had sold it down to 117,000 acres. 

R. H., the father, was a pipeline installer and installed a lot of Alaska pipeline. Calvin said the board of directors of Texaco had visited for a weekend of hunting “back in the day.” The ranch had plentiful pheasant, deer, and quail, back then. The son, Joe Kirk, once raised game animals as conservation measures, but did not allow anything shot on the ranch now except for coyotes.

R. H. also owned a lot of the works of Remington and Russell, as well as first edition books that were sold at auction by Christie’s in New York when he died.

Calvin stopped the pickup and rolled down a window. “This has been a good life, but the problem is that I don’t own a single thing you see. Not that house, not this pickup. Not even most of the furniture. I lose this job, I’ll be leaving here empty-handed after giving this ranch the better part of my life.”

I sensed a sadness I had not seen and asked if he got along well with Joe Kirk. Calvin told me that Joe Kirk was the first Texas Tech Red Raider (mascot).  He had recently mortgaged ranch property to purchase a 600 acre ranch in the Hill Country with a villa for six million.  He also owns homes in New Mexico and Colorado as well as race horses.

Without directly answering my question, he started the truck again and headed back toward headquarters. We had gone less than a mile when Calvin lifted a finger and pointed at an approaching ranch truck. “Speak of the devil.”

Joe Kirk Fulton visits the Quien Sabe about five or six times a year, and chose this day to arrive. He wanted Calvin to show him the current crop of yearling horse prospects.  Calvin asked if I could drive back and unload the horses. We said our goodbyes.

I left the ranch about mid afternoon without seeing Calvin again. 

A few months later, I heard that Calvin was working for a feedlot in Dalhart. I haven’t seen him since. 

Next time: Old Tascosa, The Mother Road, and the Bent Door.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Breakfast I Will Never Forget

Calvin told me that the Quien Sabe is home to about a hundred registered quarter horses including about ten that belong to Calvin and Linda.  The horses are all named Quien Sabe with successive numbers.  When Calvin started work there, they were at 79.  Now they are at 501. 

He told me he got started in ranching after attending West Texas State.  He worked for Earl Brown (father of Sam Brown, another schoolmate from Adrian mentioned earlier) on the Matador. Then he worked for another classmate’s dad, Louis Spinks.  He liked ranch work and studied what old timers did, learned what to do and what not to do. He was recommended for the Quien Sabe job by a man who had turned it down. 

We watched Zack and Zane work colts until dark. I was enjoying myself so much I let time slip away. I apologized for overstaying my welcome and headed for my pickup, intending to spend the night in Adrian or Vega so that I could go out to our old farmhouse the next day.

Calvin saw my luggage in the front seat of my pickup and picked it up. “Follow me.”

I lamely protested and told him my plans. I didn’t want to intrude.

“We’ll be starting branding in the morning. I’ll loan you a horse and saddle if you want to go along.”

Well, this was a dream come true. I had secretly hoped I might get to see a branding and had brought along spurs and chinks just in case. I followed him to a very nice guest house across from their house. Calvin set the alarm clock. “Come over to the house when that goes off.” He left me alone to peruse the Fulton book collection—everything from classics to westerns to investing. I chose a western novel and read till about eleven. 

The alarm went off at 3:45.  I dressed and walked over to Calvin’s house for coffee, feeling good physically and mentally.  I wondered about breakfast, but was not hungry yet. We drained our cups and I stopped to retrieve my chinks and spurs on the way to the horse barn about 4:30. Calvin smiled when he saw that I had brought them.

He pointed to a Quien Sabe palomino and a saddle and bridle on a stand. We had our horses saddled and in a trailer in less than a half hour. We drove by moonlight for about twenty minutes along ranch roads that looked more like gully washes. On the way, Calvin explained how the branding took about two weeks. The 117,000 ranch was divided into sub-ranches, each with its own foreman or manager. The managers lived on their sub-ranch in small, but sturdy cabins.

Calvin parked beside several other pickup-trailer rigs in front of a small house with a few trees in the yard and a barn to the side. Inside, I met Rooster Falcon again. I had seen him at the Abilene Ranch Rodeo.

Rooster’s wife was friendly, country girl pretty and looked to be in her late twenties. There was a screened-in overhang porch to my right where I saw a sea of big hats, all brim-up, crown-down on the floor beside four freezers that Calvin said were full of beef. I added my Panama to the mix, though it looked like the runt of the litter beside the five-inch-brimmed palm leafs and black felts. Nobody wore a hat inside.

Calvin told me that the branding was a community endeavor, and as I watched twenty-one cowboys crowd into the small house, I knew I was in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Neighbors join the Quien Sabe at branding time, and the favor is returned on the other ranches. Some probably drove an hour or more to arrive pre-dawn. 

I had immediate respect and gratitude for Rooster’s young wife as she organized the flow of hungry men through her tiny kitchen. She crowded orange juice, coffee, platters of toast, omelets and gravy, beef strips, jelly and preserves along her kitchen counter tops.

My appetite returned, but I was more interested in the cowboys. They ranged in age from pre-teen to men in their sixties. Wrangler jean legs were tucked into tall, slanted-heeled boots with thirteen and fourteen inch tops of green, yellow, red, white, and blue. Big spurs with big rowels adorned every pair. I was pleased that I brought my spurs, though they were smaller than anyone else’s. There were no t-shirts, no short sleeves, and no caps.   

After breakfast, chinks and batwing leggings were taken off the fences, tree limbs and pickup mirrors where they had been left, pulled on, and buckled up.  I didn’t see any shotgun chaps, but there might have been a pair or two. My chinks and Wranglers were about the only thing that made me fit into this group. We drove another five minutes to a pasture gate. As we unloaded our horses, I noticed that some cowboys had tapaderos (a leather covered hood) on their stirrups and some did not. I wondered if we were going to work in heavy brush or mesquite thorns. I realized I had not checked the stirrups for length when I saddled up and was surprised when they were exactly the right length. I wondered if Calvin or his sons had set them the night before after judging my height.

Next time: Gathering the herd and an abrupt, sad farewell.