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Tom Kollenborn: Earning My Spurs

By Tom Kollenborn

As the first rays of sunlight ventured across the summit of Miner’s Needle, it was time for another day’s work at the Quarter Circle U Ranch in the late spring of 1959. Usually, we were already up and feeding livestock by dawn. Breakfast had been on the stove for fifteen minutes when the feeding and watering was completed. Eggs, spuds, beans, chili, beef, bacon, biscuits and coffee were a solid breakfast for hard working cowboys. Soon, we were saddling our horses for a long day’s ride into the backcountry to check and work cattle.

The call of the quail and a distant serenade of the coyotes were music to our ears as we rode east from the old U- Ranch toward Castle Rock. This towering outcrop of rock east of the ranch looked something like a medieval castle, hence the name Castle Rock. The clinging of our horses’ shoes was mixed with the early morning sounds of the desert; a serenade only a cowboy could appreciate. The green and yellow-blossomed Palo Verde trees were like burning torches from the light of the early morning sun. We could hear the distant bellowing of a calf for its mother. One of Barkley’s range bulls was rutting and sounding his call.

The trail that lay ahead was steep, rocky and difficult to follow. We arrived at Miner’s Needle Summit with near exhausted horses. As the air temperature warmed, we rested our mounts in what shade we could find and adjusted our cinches. We then stepped into our stirrups and back into the saddle for the ride that lay ahead. Slowly, we moved our horses toward Bluff Springs corral and cabin. We stopped briefly at a seep and watered our horses. Once we arrived at the corral, we opened the gate and checked our supplies in the cabin. We then rode eastward, looking for signs of range stock. Two draws to the east, we found about twelve-head of cows and calves that needed to be moved back to the corral and checked for screw worms. It was always easier to work cattle in a corral than on open ground in this rugged country. After all, we were not expert open ground ropers, especially with all the Mesquite, Palo Verde, Jojoba, Chain Cholla, Prickley Pear, Hedgehog and Teddy Bear Cholla in the area.

We moved the cows and calves toward the corral without incident. Once they were all in the corral, we began the task of checking each animal. Some were easy to check, and others were not. This required plain hard work, and our only tools were a primitive corral, gloves, a rope and a good horse. We roped, handled and doctored each animal. The final tally was fourteen cows, fifteen calves and two yearling steers. The mother cows we only visually inspected. Two of them we did have to throw and doctor for screwworm infestation. This endeavor required most of the day. We were pleased to know we had eased the misery of these cattle by treating them for screwworms. Our accomplishments were part of the routine of being a cowboy in these mountains. This was Barkley’s first year being involved with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Screwworm Eradication Program. Almost everywhere we rode on his range, we put out sterilized flies in small boxes.

Barkley always told us this was the roughest cow range in Arizona, as far as he was concerned. We never questioned his expertise about the area. We often rode cross-country over huge rocky slide areas and steep slopes to round up cattle. A steep slope was often forty-five or more degrees. It wasn’t uncommon for a cow pony to take a spill with you. Many times, my horse’s legs would just buckle under me and we would go down. A good cowboy gets his legs out of the way before the horse hits the ground, if he is lucky. An unfortunate cowboy breaks a leg or a foot and is laid up for a couple of months or so. A smart cowboy stays out from under his horse under all conditions. Ranchers don’t like to feed cowboys with broken legs or arms. Sometimes a horse will go end over end on a down hill slope because of loose or soft ground and a steep slope. Sometimes a saddle tree will get busted, but a good cowboy steps clear with a little luck. Sometimes, a wild cow will jerk your horse out from under you in rough country once you have tied on to her with your rope. I was one lucky novice cowboy on the Barkley spread and I knew it.

Somebody asked me about the trails one time. My response, “What trails?” Most of our range riding was over rugged terrain, often where no horse had gone before, only a cow. The landscape was covered with thorn brush and Cholla cactus just to aggravate a good cowboy or a poor one. Cattle will go anywhere to find water or feed. A cowboy has to be able to follow and coax them down out of the rugged terrain where they have sought browse. If cattle have plenty of feed and water in a rugged area, they will remain until one or the other is exhausted. During roundup (rodeo), these cattle can be difficult to manage and remove from a rough mountaintop. There are many such mountains in the Superstition Wilderness. If the rock slide areas and steep slopes aren’t enough to discourage a cowboy, there are always the many thorny plants that stick and slash at your legs and arms as you ride through them. Most smart cowboys invest in thick, heavy leather leggings called Chaps. Usually these leggings add another ten pounds to your horse, but will save you several pounds of flesh. The weight your horse carries in rough country can be extremely important for your survival. An overburdened horse falls easily. These sudden unprecedented falls tend to break a cowboy’s bones. Old Gus Barkley always said everything in this desert either sticks, bites, stings or eats meat. Believe me, these were prophetic words from a great philosopher who knew what he was jawing about. When the Saguaro cactus begins to bloom, the Black gnats swarm. These nasty critters love to bite man and beast alike. After a little summer rain, you have the combination of Black gnats and Mosquitoes biting at your hide, both day and night. Just another pleasure a cowboy is subjected to while working on this range after a summer monsoon.

Rattlesnakes, scorpions, tarantulas and centipedes are nothing to fear. Common sense usually takes care of any encounters you would have with these critters. These creatures are the source of many good stories for cowboys to tell dudes. A smart cowboy is more concerned with the desert sun and the heat it produces. Cowboys who work in the summer months on the desert wear very wide brim hats and a large scarf around their neck for protection against the sun’s rays. Amazing as it may be, it is always cooler upon a horse’s back than walking on the ground. My guess is the temperature is a least ten degrees less on horseback.

Our work at the corral ended just about sundown. We tightened our cinches and began the long ride back to headquarters. We knew dinner would be late, but we got a lot of work done and felt we had relieved the misery of a lot of cattle. We arrived home long after dark. We fed what stock we had in the corral, cooked dinner and went to bed. Our well deserved rest for the night was appreciated, but usually interrupted by a damn coyote or fox in the barn chasing the chickens. We were up again at two o’clock in the morning chasing after a coyote, skunk or fox. If we weren’t guarding the chickens, doctoring animals, or fighting the Black gnats, mosquitoes, scorpions, ants and snakes, then we could get some sleep. This was just one day of my life on the Quarter Circle U Ranch. Barkley always said, that if you can survive a year on this ranch, you have earned your spurs. I was so dog-tired and exhausted, I just couldn’t get too excited about Barkley’s cowboy spun humor or philosophy; however, I knew it was the gospel of cowboy tradition in the Superstition Mountain area.

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