Spring Works, 1970, Bell Ranch
Late May of 1970, Ernest Gard and I drove into Bell Headquarters. Leo roped out ocaur horses and we spent the next two days shoeing them. The Lane family had purchased the ranch since I left last summer. Don Hofman was the new Manager, Leo Turner was still the Wagon Boss and Fred Romero was the Segundo, or Jigger.
It was good to see everyone and meet the new hands. We were looking forward to the spring wagon works for a month. The next few days we worked out of headquarters branding the registered calves. These were not big pastures, 30-40 pair in each. We would hold them up outside. One man would ease into them, make sure of the horn Brandon the cow, neck her calf and drag him out to the flankers. Along with the brand and vaccine, he would tell them the horn number and they would put a corresponding tattoo in the calf’s ear. While at Headquarters we sure enjoyed Lana Turner’s (Leo’s wife) great meals at the cookhouse. Joe Salas was our Wagon Cook and could sure turn out the great chuck, also. The Bells kept a commissary at Headquarters and furnished the chuck for the cookhouse and chuck wagon, plus their own Bell-raised beef hanging in the walk-in cooler. I’m all for Crisco, as it sure fries good taters and steak. Lana kept track of the commissary and told me a couple of years later that Joe used the same amount of Crisco in the two months of wagon works that she used in the cook house the other 10 month’s of the year.
When the wagon pulled out, Joe went around by the roads to the Sabinosa and Rock Creek Camps. We hit a high trot South with the remuda, going off the trail into that range. At the bottom we left the remuda with the wrangler and Leo scattered the drive. After branding that bunch and eating dinner, Leo roped out fresh horses and we gathered a band of mares and colts in that same pasture. We got them penned, even though those mares were pretty “snakey.” They’d not had a hand on them since they were halter broken. The Bell Ranch horses had good breeding and they took pride in raising their own mounts. When the irons were hot, Leo stepped on Lukey and eased into the mares and colts. Before necking a colt, he made sure of the numbers on its mammy so the book keeper could keep track of the colt’s lineage. The brander put the familiar Bell on the left shoulder and the three numbers went on the left hip. Leo would drag the colt out to a pair of muggers. One puncher would hold down on the rope to keep the colt from pawing his partner, the other fella grabbed the colt around the neck and muzzle and fell over backwards, keeping a firm grip. The other puncher released the rope and grabbed a hind leg and held it just like you would a calf.
Leo was a great roper whether it was heeling calves, roping colts or a wild cow in the brush. But things happen. As he threw a nice loop at a dun colt, the colt dodged, a mare kicked at another mare and his loop pulled down on yet another mare’s hind leg below the hock. She went nuts and hit the end of it hard and Lukey fell apart. Leo had his rope tied as a puncher should and this commenced to be as good a wreck as I’ve seen. Wild cow punchers were hunting a hole or leaping over fences. Leo managed to buck off or step away before he got a half-hitch around his belly. Those two horses tied together like that rim fired a few more mares and scattered the irons, crew and all. Someone with a bucket of guts dove in and cut the rope. As the dust settled, we threw the irons back in the fire, Leo rolled a smoke, borrowed a rope and we branded the other colts. They were all wearing a Bell brand when we threw the gate open!
For the next couple of weeks we worked through the Zorro, Perra, and Big Flat Pastures and all went well. At the Seco camp, Leo had that wreck on Alley Oop that broke his ribs and gave him a concussion. Don hauled him to the hospital in Tucumcari, where Leo stayed a couple or three days, then showed up ready to go to work. The next day after Leo’s wreck, the wagon moved to the lower part of the Seco. We made a drive and threw into the bronc trap. We held them up in a corner and Don and Fred whacked out the dries. The cuts were held between the herd and the bronc pens, then three or four punchers penned them so they could be sprayed and turned out in the West Bronc. As we were penning them, one big dry broke out. I beat them to her and whacked it on her. Fred heeled her, we stretched her out and I put dirt in her eyes. The boss said, “Let her up, she’ll drive now.” I doubted that. She came up, blowing snot and hooked Don’s mount, named Partner. She pulled out and not toward the corrals! Don had his rope tied and in two jumps roped her around the horns. She was headed down a slight slope and Don turned off. That dry weighed 1,100-1,200 pounds. Don and Partner were going at full speed in the opposite direction. As they say, “when an irresistible force hits an immoveable object, something has to give.” Don’s rope broke and it sounded like a 30-30. It came back at him with such force that it cut his little finger off. Fred and Ernest took after the dry, and Don was still mounted, staring at his hand. I stepped off and saw that his finger was hanging by the hide, so I tried to screw it back on and wrapped it with my neck rag. Frank Vigil was at the corrals in his pick-up because they had just sprayed the cuts. Don and I hit a high trot to Frank’s pick-up and they headed for Tucumcari. The drive was too far and they couldn’t save his finger.
Frank was an interesting fellow and we became friends over the years. He was raised on the Bells when it was the big outfit. His Dad and his Grandpa had worked on the Bells before him. Over the years I’d quiz him about the old time Bells when it was 1,000 sections until the late 40s. During that time, the wagon was out nearly all the time. He told me how excited he was when he was about 15 or 16 years old, school was out and the wagon boss told him he could go out with the wagon. Every young puncher’s dream was to be out with the crew under the stars. Frank said they were over on the west side and had to cross the Canadian River with the remuda, wagon and all. He remembered that he was sure scared but all those “old guys” that were probably every bit of 30 or 40 years old, just pulled their hats down and whipped and spurred into it. He said they’d go out of sight and come up swimming. He said he wanted to make a hand but it took every ounce of sand he had to spur into that river, but he did. As a young man, he went into the Army, then wound up at the Matadors in Texas for several years. He always referred to it as “working at the Mat’s.” The Matadors have always been a wild, cowboy Texas Outfit and Frank enjoyed all the wild roping and riding. It was there, in pursuing a wild cow that his horse fell and broke Frank’s leg badly. He always had a limp after that. When he came back to the Bells, George hired him to oversee the windmills. He always liked to be around when we were working cattle. During Spring branding, besides pulling the sprayer, he dehorned all the bull calves. During Fall works he’d run the cutting gates where we separated the cows and sorted the calves. He had a room of his own at the end of the bunk house and many a summer night, he hosted Leo, Joe Salas and I to a card game on the screened-in porch. He loved that Bell range as many of us do. Frank passed away in the 90s. He was a “sure-nuff” Bell Ranch puncher.
We pulled the wagon in around July 1st. Don had asked me to stay the summer, so I claimed a bunk in the bunkhouse, rolled out my bed and hung my slicker and pistol on a peg. After the 4th, Leo, Fred, Burt and I finally tracked up on the bronc herd in the Seco. They felt good and it was a horse race. A puncher got in the lead and held them up, then we drove them to the bronc pens. Bert and I spent July putting saddles on those ten or twelve three-year olds at the bronc pens. Besides riding colts and prowling, we would start in August gathering the bulls. The Bells had good big-boned, horned Hereford cows and bulls. We did it all from a-horseback, throwing them into traps and then driving into a holding pasture. There was always a few that got on the hook or tried to run off, so had to be roped. I like to rope but never did like being tied to such a hunk of beef. No matter how well you’re mounted, they can jerk you down or come meet you. As soon as one was roped, another cowboy would rope him, also. That way you could keep them off of each other. Another puncher would then throw a big loop round the bull’s hips and away we’d go to the gate. Too soon it was time to roll our beds, sack our saddles and head for NMSU.