Woman in Levi's

Eulalia Bourne

Chapter 12

Too Much of a Good Thing

It puzzles me to find so much written on the subject of people bored with their daily lives. It is a cinch such people do not teach school or punch cows.

The cowpunching range life-perhaps the least monotonous of all occupations-goes along in a manner that is adventurous, exciting, hazardous, and unpredictable. Day by day, it offers little irresponsible freedom and no unassailable security. When you think you've touched bottom, the bottom falls out.

Ranching is a series of crises. To keep you alert, the animals become ill or get poisoned by noxious weeds or bad water, or fall prey to careless hunters or common thieves. They tumble off cliffs, or get trapped in old mine diggings. When the calves are all on the ground and the cows are doing well, financial troubles and other wide-awake worries can arise with stunning suddenness. They arise from such causes as breakdowns in machinery, accidents, drought, and rain.


Can it be that wonderful, life-giving rain can damage anything except cotton plants and the roads in this great canyon corrugated valley? Rain on the range is the blessing from the sky. It means life instead of starvation; staying with the outfit another year instead of giving up. It is the whole story. Yet in these wild canyons it can be a killer: dumping an overfull cloud that may wipe you out in one flash-flood. Sudden enough and hard enough, it can devastate plain and desert also, as Noah found out. Even in towns and cities in southern Arizona, hardly a year passes that lives aren't lost in raging floods-sometimes within the municipal limits. Innocent-looking arroyos, or dips in highways, become spillways for powerful torrents that sweep cars, and once in awhile houses, right along with their hapless occupants.

The San Pedro River is exceptionally flood-prone. Its tributary channels, numbered by the hundred, are often miles long and are funnel-sided steep gashes in the earth built by floods and for floods. I have ranched in two of these channels. The upshot is that I wouldn't advise it. Experience shows that it seldom rains in a canyon because of down-drafts. "Scattered showers" hit all around on hill and plain. Rains fall on the mesas bordering the river bottom. But when you see a hard rain "washing hell off the cross," as the cowboys say, on the high divide at the head of your canyon, particularly when your place remains dry, look for trouble.

It was time for the rainy season--if any--to begin. We could pump out the well at the upper place in two hours, and it took all night for it to come up again. The cattle hung around the water so that it was impossible to keep the troughs full. We chased them off before feeding time, the Uncle and I, because we could give hay only to those we thought might go down. But the deep-set eyes of hunger are haunting.

At Mesquite Corrals, two miles below the house, the storage was so low that when the pump failed one day there was nothing but black ooze in the long cement canoa (feeding trough) and the goldfish died. Hundreds of young quail drowned there trying to drink. It was easy for them to hop down into the canoa, but they couldn't get out again. Each day we rescued a bunch and threw out the dead. Nothing could save them but rain to fill the troughs so they might drink from the brim.

After five bad seasons, hope itself is painful. It hurt to see the white clouds puff up on the horizon the morning of San Juan's Day. Newspapers in southern Arizona cooperate in preserving the tradition that it always rains on San Juan's Day somewhat in the same way as Groundhog Day is publicized in other sections of the country.

At the lower well, deep enough (nearly 300 feet) to hold its water level throughout dry years, the windmill wasn't throwing enough water to keep up with the cattle, so we decided to pull the sucker rods and put new leathers on the cylinder. Wilbur, the friend living in the village who liked to spend Sundays out in the open, and another fellow not long from Texas who had a box of tools and a good set of chain blocks, came out to do the work.

Arturo was the schoolboy vacationing on the ranch that year. Shortly after midday he and I drove the five miles down the canyon to take lunch to the men. They were hot and tired and dirty, but they wouldn't eat until they had finished the job. Wilbur, an Arizonan, didn't say anything about the clouds, or the wind that was springing up, but Tex remarked that if he were in God's country, he'd say it was going to rain. Speaking about rain before it arrives is taboo around here. Always when he left the house, the Old Vaquero said: "Leave my bed outside. If it gets wet I like it that way." When it began to sprinkle and I ran out to take in the wash or the bedclothes from the cots, the Uncle would say: "You'll scare it away."

That day, in less time than it took to eat a sandwich the western sky rapidly mobilized into barrages of lightning and thunder and the strong wind began to mean business. We broke up our picnic lunch and prepared to leave in a rush.

The cloud burst over Rice Peak, right at the head of Pepper Sauce Canyon, and that meant water in the well for the house again. It could also mean a flood that could fill the whole canyon.

Wilbur and Arturo elected to ride the horses over the ridge trail to drive Utah, an old cholla-eater, and her calf to the feed corrals above. Tex and I threw the stuff into Wilbur's car and made a dash up the wash for safety-a five-mile race against the oncoming waters. I knew if we didn't reach the road to the ranch before it washed out, we would be cut off from home for no telling how long I knew, too, that beating the flood through the last two miles of box-walled canyon meant survival itself.

Tex kept griping at my reckless haste, arguing that he could tell by the waterline along the cliffs that the water never got more than a foot deep, so what if we did meet a flood? I ignored his plainsman's comments to concentrate on making speed and watching the rain gather and come straight at us. Halfway up the "Box" we found the water running down the ruts and spreading over the sand. Even so, we had to stop a moment and frantically chase a cow and her calf out from under a little tree and up the ridge trail.

By the time we reached the small gorge where the road is cut to lead up to the house, the water was over the floorboards and I had my door unlatched, ready to abandon ship. Reaching the safety of the forty-acre ledge on the ridge above the canyon wall, we splashed ankle deep across a river to get to the door of the main cabin. All depressions on both hillsides were running full and emptying pell-mell into the main stream. As I struggled with window sashes and flapping screens, sure enough, I heard, above the noise of the drumming downpour on the low roof, the wild, continuous roar of the flood. It was impossible to resist running to the edge of the bank to see it.

Old Tex stared open-mouthed into the dark, tumbling cataract. Where we had driven up the sand-wash on a well-packed road minutes before, a four-foot wall of water roared down the canyon bank-to-bank. Seeing was believing. He swore in wonder.

It was the biggest flood I had seen there in seven years' occupancy. Grandma Pierson, who lived on Mesquite Wash, the largest tributary of Pepper Sauce, said that in thirty-five years she had never seen bigger. Where Mesquite joined the main canyon, the murky rushing water, taking everything before it, was a thousand feet wide. It ran all the way to the San Pedro River, thirteen miles away, wiping out roads and fences, and changing channel beds.

Even as we stood in the soaking rain watching the great washout, Tex began to moan about how was he going to get back to the village, twelve miles over hill and canyon, to be with his new (middle-aged) wife whom he had never been away from a single night. He couldn't possibly not get home, he declared. I wasn't interested. My exultation over the rain had begun to dim as I watched the pasture fence go by. Worry intensified as I saw waves tentatively lap over the stone embankment that protected the well. That well, covered by a rude tin shack, with a new engine and the two miles of pipeline down the canyon, was the heart and arteries of the ranch. The Uncle's breakwater, meshed with hog wire, slowly began to come apart on the lower end. The water rose in spurts on the sides of the flimsy wellhouse.

The deafening flood, rank with the sweepings of long drought, cut its way down the curving walls of the canyon and hit the opposite bank at the big turn with the force of a Niagara. The backwash eddied up around the big cottonwood tree and reached the area of the well, carrying off the fifty-gallon gasoline barrel (just filled) and the five-gallon oil can. The next thing to go would be the new engine, not yet fully paid for. Then the well would fill up with sand and trash. I stared at the sky for signs of respite and hope. Just as the near side of the well-house swung loose at the bottom giving the flood a cleaner swipe at the boards that covered the well curbing, the climax was reached. With sputtering claps of thunder and a few light dashes of belated raindrops, San Juan called off his waterspout.

Two hours later I was able to wade across to the well to survey the damage. Most of the wrenches, pipes, and small tools had gone with the gasoline and oil drums. A thick smear of slimy silt covered the wellhouse floor and the stout wooden cover that protected the precious well, but the well itself was still intact although its water would be red with fine silt for several days. The flood had just reached the two-by-sixes that held the engine in place.

A few days later, we found the full gasoline barrel wedged in some mesquite roots several feet above the creek bed half a mile below the house. As far as we knew, only one cow had drowned: the Hunting Neighbor found her swollen body several miles below the Windmill.

The greatest damage done was to the pipeline. We had laid it along the edges of the creek bed and covered it with a foot or two of sand and rocks. It had withstood the ravages of seven years of summer floods, but this one got it. Human labor above and beyond the call of good sense and discretion finally disclosed that for a quarter of a mile where the canyon was most narrow, the line was broken into joints; many of them twisted or broken, all of them packed solid with mud, and buried under tons of recent soaked sand.

Over the years we had noticed that some floods cleaned out the sand, leaving the creek-bed full of unwieldy boulders; others brought in enormous quantities of new sand, loose and hard to travel by automobile. This flood was the champion in the latter category. We had to work our way down the canyon by practically paving the road ruts with brush and stones. What surely must have been the entire supply of sand on the east slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains had been dumped on our broken pipeline. For two hot days of fruitless digging, we couldn't even find a trace of it. The Uncle cut a forked stick from a peach tree and "witched," but since the pipes were filled with sand instead of water, he got no results. We rode the canyon in careful search without finding a length of pipe, but there was no question of giving up. We had to find that pipeline and fix it or the best part of our range would not be usable for lack of drinking water.

With shovels, and crowbars to pry the rocks, the Uncle, Arturo, and I cut an exploratory ditch all the way across the canyon at a bend a few hundred yards below the well. There, at the depth of four feet, we found a couple of lengths of pipe. All that digging in heavy wet sand had us exhausted. A bulldozer was in order, but for us it was as out of the question as the Uncle's wish for a scraper and a team of mules. At the village I found a couple of men who kindly consented to come out and dig. Once committed, nobody quit. To this day I marvel at the fortitude and generosity of those who did all that terrible digging under a hot July sun for the end purpose of putting water for the cattle at the lower watering troughs at "Mesquite" and "Dos Pilitas."

The Old Vaquero had gone to the mountain to cut wood for the vacationers as he did every summer when I could not pay him wages. He heard of our disaster and rode down the mountain to throw his strength-in his prime it had been that of two good men-into the Herculean job of digging ditches in the heavy, damp sand for hundreds of yards, to a depth, in places, of ten feet. I could not pay him or the Uncle or Arturo any money, and I am ashamed to say I paid the "hired" men only 32.50 a day plus transportation. But everybody was game. I fed them well on biscuits, refried beans, jerky gravy, and chocolate cake, and dug along beside them.

In less than a week the job was done-the pipes found, mended, cleaned out, and connected-and we were pumping water into the lower troughs. In another week we could make the road up and down the sand-wash without getting stuck, and the fences were back in place. By that time, the tender green grass and weeds that had come out after the heavy rain were scorched to the ground. It was nineteen days before it rained another drop.

In volume, that was the biggest flood that ever struck my outfit, but it was not the most costly. Top rating in that class goes to the Great Flood suffered here in this canyon, July 13, 1955-a disaster that took the lives of nine head of cattle and put my water system out of commission for many days. What made it extra hard to bear was that out of that storm, terrific up on the high divide, we didn't get a drop here on the ranch. That is why the cattle drowned. They were ambushed by a sudden unexpected wall of water before they were aware of danger.

In summer the cows generally graze on the hills and ridges early in the morning. They then bring their calves and yearlings down to the creek to drink and lie in the shade near the water until the cool of the evening, when they slowly climb out again in search of food. But as soon as it starts to rain or snow, they hurry off to a high place. If they didn't, there wouldn't be any cattle left in this treacherous gorge we inhabit for the sake of the water it furnishes. Practically all canyons on the west side of the steep mountains and foothills that rim the San Pedro Valley on the east are death traps. Several miles south of us at Clark Wash a few summers ago, my neighbors, the Mercers, lost twenty-four head of cattle in a big rise that came down on the unsuspecting creatures lying in the dry shade of a high bluff near the surface water where they were wont to drink. That rain cost the owners over $2000--and cost the cattle their lives.

Nature endows a cow with instinct enough to get out of low places when it starts to rain. But she doesn't give it sense enough to look up the creek and see a big storm that will send a wall of water, armed with logs and uprooted trees and giant boulders, on a drive down the canyon into places that are still deceptively dry. Cows are endowed with four life-preserving senses. (Discount taste: they often eat things that kill them. ) They can see danger, and hear it, and smell it, and feel it; but they can't imagine it when it is several miles away.

That accounts for the perishing in the Great Flood of my three young cows and their little calves and the dry cow and two weaned heifer yearlings. They were minding their own business in the dry shade of a mesquite thicket when a juggernaut born of a deluge up on the eastern divide came down with ambush tactics and overwhelming force and swept them out of this life. I had been up the canyon in the Jeep that afternoon and had seen them quietly taking their siestas. I never saw them again. There was a lazy old fat bull with the bunch, and I figured that he, too, had drowned, for we could not find him in any of his regular haunts. Two months later I rode up to a neighbor's water trough and there was my bull making himself at home with the neighbor's cows. He had escaped the flood, but it scared him so much that he left his own country and emigrated to a safer land.

Fortunately, we are near enough to the high mountains to get at least a few warning drops when a flood is imminent. Otherwise all our cattle would die, as most of them drink from living water in the creek bed. One favorite cow, Little Tita, drowned right when it was raining. When the flood caught her on one side of the creek and her three-month-old calf on the other, maternal anxiety compelled her to plunge into the dark torrent.

One summer evening I raced a flood down to the spring in the old Jeep pickup. We had seen a shower up in the high country; but I could look right through it and see the mountains, so I was convinced there was no danger of flood. Neighbor Pete who lives alone two miles up the canyon at the non-producing mines and comes down to help with the chores and share our evening meal, was worried about his well. It is located in the creek bed near one bank, and has a cement curbing about four feet in height to protect it. A good-sized flood will go over the top and fill it with rocks and muck. Usually he keeps it tightly covered, but he had been cleaning it out and deepening it because of the falling water level during the dry season. He was practically a newcomer and therefore he relied on my judgment that there would be no flood and that it was safe to stay for supper. He had walked down, so I sent Jesús to take him home in the Jeep. Jesús (pronounced Hay-soos) was a young Mexican whom I had helped to immigrate. He came to help me for a few months while the Old Vaquero was off somewhere taking quack treatments for his arthritis.

In a few minutes, Jesús came running to the corral to find me, crying excitedly: "There's a big flood coming; down the canyon. It is at the Iron Gate now."

The trouble was that we had just started the pump. It is situated a mile away from the house, on the far side of the canyon where there is a fairly high ledge of rock-ribbed land on which to anchor it above the spring. If we should leave it running during a flood, the muddy water would jimmy its works, besides putting foul sediment in the storage tank here at the house.

Away we went on a wild ride down the terrible road, I hanging on to the wheel and Jesús clutching at whatever he could grab. Around the sharp bends and across the deep arroyos and over the ruts and boulders and tire cutting sharp rocks we raced in second gear, doing our dangedest. Luckily, our dangedest was enough.

We leaped out at the creek bank and heard the mighty rumbling coming around the bend like an express train a few yards above us.

"Run, Jesús!" I cried, tossing him my flashlight. Jesús ran. In seconds he made the rocky creek bed and the level stretch, pulled the sparkplug cord, and dashed back to safety, the roaring flood lapping at his heels.

The sound of it, the smell of it, the sight of it-like nothing else on earth---held us stupefied. We stood speechless at its edge, my light searching for casualties, although I was pretty sure that no cattle had been caught, for they do not sleep in the creek bottom at night. Too many rocks.

My light followed the dark, foam-flecked waves as they rolled over the crystal-clear spring beneath the overhanging bluff. In the early years, I used to worry about flood damage to the spring. All the fortifications-high cement walls, concrete boxes, and four-inch iron pipes-were swept away as fast as we could set them up. But we have learned that the spring, like hope, seems eternal. Centuries of floods have not destroyed it. It fights back, gently and persistently; and when the fury of the flood has passed, it finds its way through sand and stone, through all the outrageous debris, to bubble up to the surface in a fountain of delight.

Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.

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