Woman in Levi's

Eulalia Bourne

Chapter 3

Water Comes First

When fate in the form of a younger, fairer girl de-spoused me, I sought a substitute teacher for my little cowpunchers and became, for a time (until I could get things going and find someone who would stay on the place while I was off at work) solely a woman-with-a-little-ranch: actually, a woman-about-to-lose-a-little-ranch. The odds were overwhelming. No help, no capital, no credit, and-the greatest of all handicaps-no rain. But when everything is against you, when you haven't got a ghost of a show, the injustice of the battle enrages you to superhuman endurance and fighting strength.

When I read Gone With The Wind I was greatly touched by the pluck of Scarlett O'Hara, determined to save her beloved Tara, the plantation where she was born, with her bare hands. In my case, "Tara" was a little raw-hide outfit that added up economically to nothing but hard work and hard luck. Sentimentally it totaled more. It was the home of my cows and horses and dogs; my own roots had dug in there for seven dry years. I couldn't abandon it.

Strictly speaking, I had not been in the management branch of the operation. I was part of the crew of which the Cowboy had been the better half. I had helped brand and doctor cattle and gather and deliver them; and helped build fences and corrals and sheds; and haul feed and supplies; and fix roads; and put in and maintain wells troughs and pipelines. But I had looked to authority direction. My main job had been a hundred miles farther south.

Then one day, there I was alone-the whole shebang on my shoulders. Where to begin? Like a student, I tried to survey the situation by writing down a schedule of the duties I must undertake, in what I considered their order of importance.

First came water. Check the tanks. Start the pump. Go down the canyon five miles to the deep well, and repeat.

Second, the critters-the livestock, beginning with the hospitalized ones.

Third in rank, the people, if any. Friends and relatives and occasional hired hands must at times be housed and fed and transported, and even kept amused.

Fourth, I listed outdoor chores: fences, represos (dams), corrals, roadwork, wood-getting, business and shopping trips to the outside.

Fifth, tasks that were purely pleasure: trees, vines, flowers, garden, and care of pets.

Beyond that, unexpended energy for housework and personal activities such as reading and writing.

Sheer necessity put water first. Water-the loveliest and most powerful of earth's compounds, most remarkable of Nature's agents-wonder-working water, to keep alive my nearly two hundred head of livestock; and the growing plants in my quarter-acre garden. Water, from that day forward, became my responsibility.

This arresting thought, with all its ramifications, sent me to a small encyclopedia that opened its discourse with this sentence: "The importance of water to life and most of its properties is familiar to all."

I met this statement with skepticism. I wondered how many of "all" those living in municipalities in our land ever think beyond the convenience of water taps and the annoyance of bills, or how familiar they are with the plight of the rural minority who invite disaster by owning their own water systems.

An urbanite woman, by a twist of the wrist, is painlessly supplied with the precious stuff which refreshes her, inside and out. She is uneasy only when it comes down upon her in shelterless moments in some form of precipitation. She doesn't know how well-off she is to be able to obtain bodily comfort and peace of mind merely by opening a faucet. She never has had to manipulate a mechanical motor-driven pump or pull the sucker rods of a windmill. She has never worked a "one-armed Johnny" or pulled water out of a dug well with a bucket on the end of a rope and watched the dry cows swig it down faster than she could bring it up.

Now and then, in society and in business, I meet her and she says she envies my outdoor life in the great open spaces. My boots and pants and heavily tanned skin intrigue her. In her innocence she cannot imagine the pitfalls lying in wait if she were to forsake the city waterworks for the "freedom" of life on a cattle ranch. The freedom is relative. She would find herself a slave to the tedious, sometimes perilous task of keeping water where it is needed.

Each night in the six months of Southern Arizona "summer" I have to go down the canyon three-quarters of a mile in a rough pickup to fight the pump into action. No matter what the fix I am in physically or emotionally, what I have done during the day, how far I have traveled or how late arrived home (once it was 2:30 a.m.), I must go down the bumpy lonesome road and wrestle the pump. I cannot wait until daylight, because the pipeline is on top of the ground-the ground being ninety-nine percent rocks. Three to six hours of pumping under the Arizona sun would result in a tank of scalding water. Also, it is easier on the engine to run it at night. It is not easier on the engineer.

On occasion during school terms, I have stayed awake all night to drive a hundred miles after work to start the pump, fill the tanks, and water the trees. Then retrace the hundred miles to be on hand to ring the opening school bell in the morning.

It is a matter of water or no water. If you have cows and horses and plants, there is no compromise. Death may strike, banks go broke, hearts break, earthquakes heave, bombs explode-the pump must keep on putting out water.

A pump is something to regard with ambivalence. I love to hear one run (the motor, of course). It is musical rhythm with soothing lyrics that seem to say: WATER, water, water, water-WATER, water, water, water, hour after morale-building hour. To an outdoor Arizonan, it can be nothing but pleasant. But a pump is more than that. Literally, says my dictionary, a pump is "a mechanical device for raising, circulating, or otherwise moving, or for compressing or exhausting, a liquid or gas, by means of suction or pressure, usually induced by the motion of a lever or crank." The word I get out of that is exhausting. No contraption ever devised by man produces more corollary exhaustion than a stationary gasoline engine.

When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, magazines printed pictures of him collapsing into the arms of his pals at the end of his run. He looked the way I feel after a bout with a balky engine. But such a contest could never be considered sport. It is too unequal: an eight and one-half-horsepower motor versus the human heart, horsepower about 1/240.

It is consoling to know that women have no monopoly on trouble with engines. The mine up my canyon has a number of stationary engines. Every few days the three mechanics on hire are going to the mat with one or more of them, and sometimes, even like me, coming out second best. It has struck my notice that few mechanics are men past middle life. Their mortality rate must be high, suggesting that engine trouble is a deadly hazard-the reason, no doubt, for the excessive hourly wage mechanics have to be paid.

The pump itself rarely goes out of kilter. When it does need a part, if only a cheap gasket, you can't go to the place where you bought it. You must send far away, to Salem, Ohio. If you don't have the foresight and cash to order essentials like rings and valve stems before you need them, your water supply is imperiled. The transaction takes weeks.

Nothing more curse-worthy than the gasoline engine has been invented in the name of progress. After it has run fifty hours, there is only one way for it to go-down the hill to the repair shop. In my case, this means over a hundred miles of travel and most of an uneasy day watching mechanics monkey around at four dollars an hour. The hardest part of the operation is the loading and unloading of the dead-iron weight. For ruin of health and temper and morale, and devastation of expense funds, I will back a little one-cylinder gasoline engine against any game of chance. I know a successful cowman-one who lends the bank money instead of vice versa-who goes to superstitious lengths never to approach one. He says, with appropriate invective, "I can just ride by one and it stops."

A sister from a California city, visiting at the Ranch in November, went with me one morning when I drove down to start the pump. The spring is a lovely place, the beauty spot of the ranch: clear, running water edged by dwarf sycamores under high conglomerate bluffs decorated with sahuaros, ocotillos, and nopales. Under a shabby tin roof by this murmuring stream, sits the scowling untidy iron monster that lifts the water, when it will, a distance of 4300 feet and a height of almost 300 feet into the big cement tank which supplies the house, garden, and corral pipelines.

While she stood impressed, I filled the gas tank, checked the oil, primed the pump, flipped the choke lever, took up the crank, and gave the heavy flywheel about twenty jerking whirls-one by one. Nothing happened.

I removed the sparkplug, scraped it with my knife, poured some gas into the head, and then cranked it another twenty times. It was flooded. I kept cranking until it lost compression. Again I took out the sparkplug and this time poured in a few drops of oil. When I picked up the handle again, I ignored my sister, spoke a few coarse words, and went at it with my whole strength like a dog at furious attack. It exploded into action, noisy and smoking, lifting my spirits and ready to lift water. I cheerfully threw in the clutch, adjusted the gas, felt the intake pipe to make sure it was pumping, then washed my hands of it.

The next day when I started down to the pump, my sister said firmly: "I'll stay here and clean the kitchen. I can't stand to see you start the pump."

One morning, particularly beat by the 135 strenuous muscular wrenches it had taken to get the engine going, I sat staring at it in puzzled contemplation. Why are internal-combustion engines, whose motive power is caused by the explosion of a mixture of air and gas, so hard to keep in order? Why hasn't some smart inventor put his know-how to work on them? Why don't industrialists develop a product that will give reasonable service without a high-priced mechanic fooling with them every few days? Thus pondering, I asked aloud in my privacy of several square miles: "I wonder who first made the half-baked s.o.b.?"

The encyclopedia divulged some facts. The first gas-burning engine was made in 1823 by Samuel Brown, who used it to propel a boat on the Thames, drive a carriage, and work a pump. (Not that he needed a pump: he was just playing. ) It didn't amount to anything-merely Mr. Brown's hobby-horse. The first commercially practicable one, operating on illuminating gas, was placed on the market by the Frenchman, Lenoir, in 1860. It was discarded because it used so much gas. In 1877, Nikolaus Otto patented the prototype of the four-cycle internal-combustion gasoline engine we use today.

But gasoline engines to pump water belong to the age of bustles and high-wheeled bicycles! Oh! that in the near future I might turn in my own mulish unreliable apparatus on a snappy, wonder-metal, lightweight gasoline engine that would fire at the press of a button and run for years the way my little pickup has-nearly five years and 94,000 miles with no motor repairs, not even a valve job.

But, Dr. Otto, I guess I'm stuck with you. And so are all my fellow-ranchers from the hills and backwoods, at least until the whole country is powered by something that doesn't require miles of wire and poles.

Excluding hill and canyon country such as this, as far as I know, the United States already relies on electric motors for power. I pass them in the agricultural valleys, and stop in wonder to see solid streams of water as wide as I am shooting out of big pipes that go deep into the earth. It seems a miracle. As I drive along the city streets I notice the misty spray from lawn sprinklers and am struck by its delicate beauty; also I am comforted with the knowledge that the woman's hand that turned it on need not be grimed with oil and carbon that go too deep for soap.

Electric power has crept like a rising flood into the rural sections of our land. Once it looked as if it might creep into my place. A co-op representative came around taking applications, and I put in mine with the filing fee of five dollars. The company started up, and went as far as a millionaire's ranch just this side of the great mountains. Then came a Republican Congress, and my participation in REA blew up. (I never got back my five dollars, either.)

But even electricity cannot prevent pipeline troubles. Rust, for example, eats iron enough to shorten the lifespan of a mile of two-inch pipe which would cost about four thousand dollars to replace. As time goes by, there are increasing holes to plug in my waterline. Since it must be above ground-this ground is too solid to be ditched-the twenty-foot lengths are welded so that when heat expands them they can squirm around without breaking at the joints.

One year, in the midst of our mild winter rainy season, the atmosphere split open, north and south, as with the rod of Moses. Down the opening came a two-day blast of arctic cold that froze all the pipelines in the country, and broke most of them; mine, I believe, took the record. Surprise, rather than carelessness, caused our disaster. That January tenth was sunny and mild as usual; we rode without jackets. But that evening, a warning by radio made me send the Nephew down to drain the line by opening the faucet at the pump. There is a theory in this part of the world that as long as water is moving it won't freeze. The faucet was opened part way so that it would drain slowly all night, and it wouldn't take so long to fill the line next morning.

Before daylight Old North Pole puffed up his cheeks with icy air and blew a blast straight at the desert country of the Southwest. Neighbors will testify that never before had a barrel cactus been known to freeze. To the dismayed astonishment of all, even the giant sahuaros-many of them ancient-were killed. Nobody had seen that happen before.

Our old pipeline? At first count there were ninety-three breaks ranging from pencil-sized holes to splits four feet long. It was eight days before we got water to the house and then only a trickle. We used a truckload of old inner tubes which we cut into strips and wrapped tightly over the breaks, binding the rubber at close intervals with plier-tightened lengths of baling wire. Later, when the weather cleared and we had some water storage to rely on, we cemented the worst breaks, carrying heavy buckets of sand and cement up and down the gullies.

I say "we," for this disaster did not have to be tackled single-handed. The Nephew, with a few weeks of free time, was visiting. And we were re-enforced by a kind neighbor: Pete, the caretaker at an idle copper mill up the canyon, who devised some clamps patterned after the high priced ones I had bought in town for the most strategic spots. His pipes were broken, too, but his line was short enough to fix in a couple of days and he had pipe replacements.

While we were laboring to get water up on the hill, we had to catch rainwater off the roof for house use, and had to take time out from the pipe work to drive the cattle down the creek to the spring.

Electricity would have helped in this calamity. A friend who lives in the village offered to bring his paraphernalia and weld the breaks; thus getting water up here faster and with much less hard work. But no electric power. Long ago, when the mine up the creek was a million-dollar operation, they had a big generator-its drive shaft weighed four and a half tons, according to the junk man who blew it up with dynamite and trucked it to Los Angeles-and thus plenty of electricity. Long ago, that was. All the machinery has since been trucked away for scrap iron. The wire is gone, and the only poles remaining are those in inaccessible places.

Some day, when the world is in need of the minerals in this extremely rough location, that is, when the minerals are vital enough to warrant the terrific expense necessary to transport them, there will be electric power in this canyon again. But not in my day. For me there is no escape from Dr. Otto's bungling. But there are compensations.

I know of no better way to assuage the melancholia known in recent times as "carrying the torch," than to tackle a gasoline engine in an ugly condition. You may be sad in the gray dawn as you listlessly don your work togs. They are greasy and torn. Who's to care? You stumble down the steep path to the great cottonwood you have loved for years and whose loveliness and color was once a shared pleasure. There is no roughhousing in the canyon sand, no tricks or jokes to lift morale above the dreaded task.

As your nostalgic glance moves up the empty trail while you are straining the gas into the tank and checking the oil level, a ghost on horseback meets memory's eye. Instinctively you listen for a whistle that you know you'll never hear again: Avaunt, shade! Dr. Otto, quick, our duel!

You place the crank, spraddle your legs, stoop low to the level of your monstrous enemy, place the fingers of your left hand over the apertures forming the choke, push the intake valve with your thumb, and with the right hand and arm spin the heavy, solid wheel full blast, releasing the valve and choke at what you hope is the; propitious moment. Nothing happens. Repeat operation. Same result. Do this again and again; strain and work and worry and fight. When at last the recalcitrant contraption has yielded into heart-warming explosions, you are so played out you have a good immunity to emotional hangovers. That ghost, you reflect philosophically, as your heart stops palpitating, you wipe the sweat from your brow, and trudge uphill to open the valves, was a darn poor pump-man also.

Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.

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The University of Arizona Press, 2/2/97 2:06PM