Woman in Levi's

Eulalia Bourne

Chapter 8

The Rangeland Order of the Purple Heart

A cowman, writing with waggish outdoor wit in recent issue of Arizona Cattlelog, said he got hurt by "a sloppy old critter with no pride in the way she fell."

That could hardly happen here. The critters grazing my steep canyon walls have tough, surefooted sinews. They sometimes make threats-on purpose-with hoofs and horns, and are occasionally free with wallops from hard mulish heads, but none has hurt any person by accident. The only scar I bear from bovine assault is on the muscle of my left leg, where a steer gave me a kick with the fullest intention.

I had three yearlings cornered in the crowding pen, trying to load them for delivery to the Saturday auction. One was stalled in the loading chute. With a good stout stick I was punching him along when one of his buddies struck me from behind with a five-hundred-pound blow that landed a few inches below my left knee joint. A well used calf-muscle saved me from a broken leg that would surely have interrupted my cattle sale, as I was alone on the ranch at the time. But a miss is as good as a mile. I was too rushed to take much note of a nondisabling injury. I finished loading my steers, but I knew I'd been hit A quick numbness spread through the lower half of my leg and what seemed like a foreign object attached itself where the kick had landed. When I had a chance to reach down to investigate, I found my skin stretched over an astonishing bulge as large as a grapefruit on the calf of my leg.

When the steers were in the rack, the endgate secured, and the pickup over the hazards and through the gate by the house, I splashed alcohol on the wound and went on with my cattle. It was Saturday. Civilization is so ordered that on Saturday afternoons and Sundays-usually the hours when country people come to grief-doctors hide out. A backwoodser falling sick or injured on weekends must wind up as his or her own physician. Two days later, a ruptured short saphenous vein had turned the "grapefruit" an ugly color, and a steady throb defied aspirin and hot water. The doctor frightened me with such dread words as "traumatic abscess" and "possible amputation." Dutifully I took his scoldings and shots and pills, and in five months the lump had disappeared. But it is a good thing that this did not happen to Marlene Dietrich, or a dark purple indent would have marred the biggest curve on one of those million-dollar gams.

All too often the newspapers and newscasters announce that someone on a ranch or farm has been accidentally killed or wounded. I have heard that by insurance companies only mining and space-riding are considered more hazardous. Yet rarely is farmer or rancher seriously hurt by cattle. The main cause of rural accidents is horsepower, a thing that some wag has said was far less dangerous when only horses had it. But experienced horsemen will testify that this is nothing to rely on.

It is remarkable that so little has been written about the bad public relations existing through the ages between horses and people. Every month tons of material are printed on the subject of horses-always from an idealized human point of view. But horses are dumb animals. Even Black Beauty, who tugged at human heartstrings a century ago told her story through a ghost writer.

Apparently the human type is susceptible to something that might be called "horse fever," analogous perhaps to gold or gambling fever. It seems to get almost everyone. School children, girls even more than boys, when they are looking for library books will say, "Do you have anything about a horse? I want to read a lot of horse books."

The trouble is that the usual horse books may be dangerous for children, spreading wrong ideas that might get them hurt. Writers of horse books seldom seem to have any knowledge of horses. They picture them as people. A ten-year-old boy catches (impossible!) a wild stallion (one of the wildest creatures on earth! ) and communicates with him in the English language until he can crawl on his back and ride him home. Fantastic! But it gets printed. And sold. Perhaps publishers, like everybody else, have horse fever to the extent that they want to adopt them into the human family. The plain fact is that horses can take us or leave us, and they'd lots rather leave us. Their charm for us, nevertheless, remains universal. In every country in the world, people love to look at horses, show them, judge them, touch them, conquer them, bet on them, own them, and-most of all-ride them. There is only one Christopher Stone; he is the fellow who said, via the London Times: "I hate horses-they are uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends."

There are many stories told and written about horses that have displayed affection for people. Personally, I have known these equine nonconformists only by hearsay. My father has told me about a big bay "hoss" of his named Joe, who presumably returned his master's affection to the extent of saving his life a few times in the wilds of the west Texas frontier many years ago. Papa had been drawn into a six-shooter fight to help a friend. The result was disastrous and he had to leave the country at great speed. Joe was his transportation-making as much as seventy-five miles a day-and his lifeguard. Papa would come to a grassy cove near water, and under cover of darkness, unsaddle and lie down on his blankets for a few hours' rest. Joe put in the time eating and listening. At any sound that might be hostile, he would arouse his master and they'd be off and away.

In the Thirties, ranchers were not simply businessmen selling pounds of flesh. By circumstances, and sometimes by choice, they were isolated-call it independent, if you like-people who did for themselves as frontier folks have ever done. When they wanted horses, they did not order an expensive trailer and drive off to Texas or California to horse shows or sales. They raised and trained their own. To do this, they kept mares that ate the grass that might have been fattening commercial herds of beef cattle. They raised colts that often helped to keep them broke, and sometimes broke their necks.

I had a wellbred dun mare that one spring brought forth a perfect replica of herself. They were a sight to see, bounding along with their spirited airs and mother-and-daughter coats. I thought I had never possessed such an adorable creature as that filly, and made big plans and dreams for her. I called her Cha Cha, short for muchacha, which is Spanish for girl (long before the popular dance came into being). Her first summer I taught her the rope and how to lead, and to let me pick up her feet and pretend to pound shoes on them. When I had to leave for school she was turned out on the range, where she grew so wild and free that all her lessons had to be done over again the second summer. That's the way it went. She learned readily enough during the vacation months, and it was fun to teach her. Came the fall, and she went back to the wild bunch. In the summer of her fourth year she taught me a lesson. I learned that whoever undertakes to gentle horses on the installment plan is sooner or later going to hit the ground harder than the tensile strength of human bones will bear.

After my downfall, I asked a professional horse breaker I had hired if he had ever acquired any broken bones.

"Leven," he said laconically, and catalogued them for me.

If you know anything about horses you know that they are very conservative, indeed quite set in their ways. Hardheaded reactionaries, they are opposed to change or innovation. They must invariably be saddled from the left. A rider must mount and dismount on the left side-and better not try to vary the routine. Where I made my mistake was in failing to conform to the tradition that a rider must move his pony-lead him a few steps, turn him around, or in some way untrack him-before climbing on. An omission of this routine constitutes a foul, and the horse assumes the right to penalize. In my case the penalty was four broken bones located in the left arm and the left hip.

Night after night as I lay in the hospital, tense with jangled nerves and worried mind, I relived the catastrophe. I fastened the cinch, picked up the reins, flipped the stirrup around, stepped up on my beautiful Cha Cha--and a land-mine exploded under the saddle. Doggone it, I had stayed with her all around one corral and out into the other, and the spectators thought I had the ride made. But I was getting higher and higher from the saddle and decided I'd better step off. The Uncle was stumbling around trying to catch her, crying "Stay with her, Sister! Stay with her!" I almost hit him when I made my three-point landing.

"Are you hurt?" he asked

"No, I don't think I am," I said; then I saw my hand going off at a strange angle to my arm. Then I tried to stand up. If only I had let her stand saddled for an hour after being ten days free in the pasture. If only I had led her out into the other corral. If only I had got my right foot into the pigeon-toed stirrup. If only I had not let the unexpected guests have the gentle horses. If only I had been born with sense!

Being thrown from a horse may have dire consequences, but it need not single one out as unqualified. Remember the then Prince of Wales--Wally's Duke of Windsor? The throne of Britain wasn't the only seat he abdicated. There was a time when he was in the newspaper regularly for being unseated by his mount. A news article about the famed Jim Shoulders, a rodeo performer who won the world's top honors for three consecutive years for riding bucking horses and Brahma bulls, listed his injuries at the age of thirty: "His collarbone has been broken three times, both arms twice, both knees twice, and an ankle once." That shows how the odds stand on horses vs. people.

The second and last-cross my fingers-disability I sustained from domesticated wild life was a broken right arm (both bones just above the wrist) suffered while tutoring a young mule. Several lessons had gone fine. This time I was showing off for a visiting cousin, a far-gone victim of horse fever. The little sorrel mule was pretty as a doll. The cousin was anxious to get his hands on her, a feeling not at all reciprocated. She let me toss the loop over her head and start walking toward her, taking up the slack. When he came up behind me she broke to run. Immediately I dropped the rope. Before I could get clear of it, the cousin grabbed it up and snubbed it around a center post. At that moment the mule whirled back, the taut rope upended me, and snap went my glass bones. To console me later the cousin said: "You were caught between a mule and a fool."

A broken arm isn't too bad. You adjust If you are overtaken horseback in a summer rain squall, your cast will melt and you'll have to improvise some splints. In the pickup alone you will manage with your left hand, reaching across under the wheel to shift gears at a propitious moment. If the "doc" will strap an aluminum brace on your arm instead of the misery-making outmoded cast, you can poke the gears into place with it after healing begins. My two biggest problems were throwing on my saddle and fastening my bra. But with a rope thrown over a beam of the shed, I could hoist the saddle and get it on a cooperative pony. As for the garment, I simply wore the thing through my forty-two days and nights, and counted myself lucky that the weather was hot and I could shower and launder simultaneously.

Considering the inherent everlasting conflict of wills and wits between horses and mankind, we can usually feel that we are top dogs and look with a degree of tolerance on occasional rebels and rioters from the losing side. We can be generous foes because we excel in logistics and battle gear. A rebellious horse can be subdued or restrained by ropes, headstalls, cross hobbles, and torturing bridlebits; he can be punished by whip and spur; he can be sold to cruel men of evil intent. There is no law against killing him, and in the era of tranquilizers, even chemical warfare is available.

Therefore, as champions big enough to lose a battle now and then, we proffer respect and some admiration to our opponent, the horse. He is worthy of our steel. We see justification in his revolt, which springs from an instinctive urge also common to us: the eternal longing for individual freedom. We pick ourselves up, maybe with help of bystanders, and doff our hats to him.

But what, except groans and curses, can be said for the merciless outrages committed upon our persons by the mechanical horsepower the machine age compels us to operate?

It was a cold December morning, very early, when I received my worst injury in the line of duty as engineer of a motor-driven pumping outfit.

This was at Pepper Sauce Canyon. I was going to move a bunch of cattle thirteen miles, to a barley field down on the river. My helpers were not robust which explains why I was the only one up at that hour. At any rate, it behooves the boss to be the earliest riser. Besides the good example, it gives a chance to keep an eye out for slips and mishaps. A feminine boss is doubly obligated, for she must take responsibility for breakfast and lunch. While coffee perked, biscuits baked, and the stars in their majestic courses proclaimed the dawn, I took my flashlight and stumbled down the steep trail to the pump in the canyon.

I have already made clear my opinion that a stationary gasoline engine is the biggest flop of the industrial age. In hot weather it burns itself to extinction and has to be hauled away to be reconditioned at great expense. In cold weather it won't start.

By spying on paid mechanics I had learned a number of tricks, and that frosty morning I played them all. When choking and priming and sleight-of-hand cranking had no effect, I resorted to my trump-pulling hard on the belt to the pumpjack pulley. The crude outfits by which country people raise water out of wells to put it up on hills for houses and corrals are always set low on the ground. To minister to one, you must bend into a U-turn, a position the human spine was not designed to maintain. Odds against me, I boldly set the gadgets and gave the cold sticky four-inch belt a sharp tug. Nothing happened. Angrily I straddled the belt, got a stout grip with both hands, and gave a mighty jerk with all the power of the three kinds of muscle: striped, smooth, and cardiac. Explosion took place where it ought to, the engine began firing forcefully and rhythmically as if it had meant to do so all along, and the little jack started lifting water and pushing it up the pipeline.

For me, alas, it was a Pyrrhic victory. I clung to the side of the pumphouse and got my leg over the whirring belt, then fell to the ground in agony. My right kidney-I learned much later-had been jerked loose from its moorings. Mercifully, at the time, I didn't know the extent of my injury. I thought I had pulled a muscle in my back. Ashamed of being awkward, I cussed up perseverance enough to get back up the hill and make a fair try at business as usual. Before beginning the long cold horseback ride, I went into the bathroom and strapped my back with adhesive tape and put aspirin tablets in my shirt pocket. Every outdoor person, no matter which sex, knows that the human body, driven by the human will, can and will do the impossible. My cattle got to pasture and I rode home.

Four years and five doctors later, I entered the hospital and a skillful urologist sliced a ten-inch incision in my flank, took out the roving kidney, trimmed away the adhesions of the entwined tube, and sewed it stoutly to the twelfth rib. He was proud of his work. My part was to pay for his brilliant achievement and the hospital service, and lie twenty-one days flat on my back with the foot of my bed propped up higher than the head: eighteen inches at first, then twelve, nine, six; and there never was a slower countdown. Besides being tied to the bedstake, my three-week absence nearly put me out of the cow business. Prospects for feed looked bad that June, and I needed money. I was relieved when a neighbor who knew cows well enough to start from scratch and make a fortune volunteered to gather and sell some of my old nellies. At the time, I had 120 cows, located, good-aged, named, and cherished. Before I knew what was happening, eighty of them had been gathered and sold. He calmly remarked: "Ever' damn one needed selling."

What cow doesn't, for one reason or another, need selling?

Seven years and a change of venue were behind me before my number came up again on the foul machine. Once more it was early morning. I "dawned," as getting up early is described in Spanish, to pump water before the summer sun hit the exposed pipeline. In this case, it was necessary to drive a jeep pickup nearly a mile down an improvised canyon road to get to the recalcitrant pump engine. My dictionary says recalcitrant in literal translation from-the Latin means kicking back. That's my word! Two days previously, a mechanic had come out to fix the engine so it would not be so hard to start. To make it fire quickly he retarded the spark. Ignorant of what this meant, I picked up the crank and gave it a whirl. My mistake! The doctor, later making ready to stab my right wrist with a long heavy needle, told me that when bones are shattered by a powerful blow they are in much worse shape than when broken by a fall from tripping over a rope or being thrown from a horse. I believed him. It was my right arm, the same one broken in the incident with the little mule. Needless to say, I drove the jeep back up the twisting bumpy road, since I was alone.

In this catalogue of injuries I shall pass lightly four cracked ribs-two each on different occasions. They were painful for only a couple of weeks or so, and nothing at all could be done for them. The heavy canvas straps that doctors use for binding rib cages are for men only.

Speaking of females, I have not happened to meet other women who have been seriously injured doing ranch work. But the country is full of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons who have made the casualty list while carrying on the daily range tasks. How does that old cowboy song about "Brown" go?

Before you start the cowpunching life,
Go make your will and kiss your wife,
And stab yourself with a butcher knife,
For that's the easiest way!

Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.

|UAP Home Page|Title Page|Acknowledgements|Levis Previous Chapter|Levis Next Chapter|

The University of Arizona Press, 2/2/97 2:07PM