Delivering Cattle In BarrosasSunday, August 01, 2010
Michael East has a ready excuse, any time, to go to his son’s home that is about a mile away from the Santa Fe Ranch house. The reason is that it offers an opportunity to visit with his two grandsons. So when Michael asked me one day, “Shall we go over to see what Johnny (his son) is doing?” I immediately said it was a good idea. We found Johnny in his shop filing away at a pair of spurs he was making. I did not note that he was not wearing eye protection. That evening he was in pain. A visit to the doctor in Edinburg the next morning confirmed his suspicions that he had metal filings in one eye. Johnny returned with an eye patch and much in pain. But this did not stop him from texting his father, “Tell Alex that while I was looking forward to a portrait session with him this evening I don’t think he wants to photograph a pirate.” These South Texans of few words are always polite, I have noted.
Johnny’s three to four day convalescence meant that the delivering of cattle (from the pastures) to cattle trucks to be then taken for feeding at the special feeding station would have to be led by father and not the son. In short because of Johnny’s bad luck it meant that Rebecca and I were going to be given the opportunity of watching something that did not happen every day.
The feeding station or comedero as the Mexican cowboys call it is over by Santa Fe Ranch but on the other side of a highway that cuts through the ranch. In this comedero the 800 pound steers gain three pounds per day until they reach approximately double that weight. It is then that they are sold and taken to slaughter. Their feed is a mixture of corn, cotton husks and a liquid formula that contains molasses.
When Rebecca found out we would be leaving on Wednesday morning at 5:30 she adamantly said she was not going. No matter how I explained to her that she would have time to sleep when we returned home and how it was important to experience new things, she did not budge. It was Letty who informed her that the event called “delivering cattle” was a rare thing that in 10 years would be so fundamentally changed that what she would miss would be unique. Rebecca changed her mind on the condition that I wake her up at 5:20. The next morning it was 5:00 when Michael knocked on my door. I had heard the jingling of his spurs so I was already awake.
Mike’s horse trailer and its heavy duty crew cab pickup had its loud diesel going and with all its lights on, in the darkness of the pre-dawn, it looked like a Minuteman missile ready for launching. From the house we went to the horse corral to pick up Mike’s quarter horse, Grammercy Flow. In the trailer I noted several saddles and stuff. Rebecca crashed in the back seat but Michael warned her that her sleep would be brief as we were going to pick up a worker called Beto at the nearby town (about 65 miles) of Falfurrias.
The name Falfurrias antedates Anglo association with the area, and its deviation is uncertain. Town founder Edward C. Lasater claimed that it was a Lipan Indian word meaning "the land of heart's delight." Others believed that it was the Spanish name for a native desert flower known as the heart's delight. Another theory is that Falfurrias is a misspelling of one or another Spanish or French word. Still another theorizes that the name refers to a local shepherd named Don Filfarrias. The term filfarrias is Mexican slang for a "dirty and untidy”.
Rebecca had complained that she had not had any breakfast so Michael stopped at a roadside café. Even before we entered older Mexican/American men sitting at a bench outside were greeting Michael. Inside the café Michael had a complete breakfast with eggs while I ordered toast and a much necessary coffee. Rebecca had changed her mind and had nothing and kept staring at the pictures on the walls and the stuffed animal heads. Her comment “Everything here is about dead animals or animals being killed,” was ignored by us.
We picked up Beto (he looked about 70 but I am sure he was much older). He told me (only after I asked him) that he was going to help at the yard we were headed to and that he had worked in Minnesota some years previously as a printer. On the way to Sarita, Texas, we passed stretches of land that had no markings. I didn’t have to ask Michael to know that they were portions of the legendary King Ranch. Outside of Sarita, Texas (not far from the original ranch house of Michael’s great aunt Sarita Kenedy East’s La Parra. It is now a retreat of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. I saw a sign that read Mifflin. Mifflin Kenedy had been a river boat captain who back in the 19th century had joined forces with another river boat captain, Captain Richard King with whom he founded a steam boat company. They prospered and they bought land. King started the King Ranch which in its heyday exceeded one million acres while Kenedy started his La Parra Ranch which became almost as large. The families intermarried and Michael East is related to both founding families.
Michael explained that this Mifflin was the headquarters for two large pastures, La Rana (the frog) and Barrosas. Even though the truck and trailer where quite long there seemed to be no problem in navigating the caliche (clay) road which was rutted at some spots because of recent unseasonal rains. From La Rana we crossed into Barrosas. Our path was suddenly blocked by a border patrol truck that had been parked. There was nobody around. We made noise but nobody came. Michael gingerly drove around and we did not get stuck. He told me, “That guy better be gone soon as he is blocking the cattle trucks that will be coming in soon.
We arrived at a clearing and I was surprised to see a jumble of cowboys and some not-so-cowboy looking men with baseball caps. They were building temporary corals and a special shute to guide the cattle up on to the soon to arrive cattle trucks. The temporary corrals were made up of sturdy but quite portable tubular steel frames. Beto took out Gramercy Flow and brushed him all over before saddling him for Michael.
Rebecca was appalled at the soquete that was all around us. Soquete, as it is called by the Mexican workers of the area is a soft and muddy mixture of mud with cattle droppings. Rebecca did not want to ruin the new Keds she had purchased back in Austin at Macy’s!
Michael warned us to stay in the truck. They were going to bring about 400 steers (anywhere from one to one year and a half old) from the nearby pasture. This was going to be done by cowboys on horses. They would funnel them into a large holding pen that fed into a smaller pen which then fed into a narrow chute that led to the cattle truck. Next to the chute there was a door that at any given moment would be opened. Michael, up on a metal platform would decide if a particular steer was still too small. If that was the case the steer went back onto another corral and from there back to pasture. We were to stay in the truck until the cattle was in the holding pen because we could spook them which would cause chaos.
From that point on we could move about within certain limits. Again the steers weren’t used to humans and they spooked easily. As I saw it from the holding pen a few cowboys would cut steers (about 15 of them) and bring them into a smaller pen. From there other cowboys would urge them (with loud noises and the cracking of leather whips called chicotes into a narrow and long pen (really not much room except for one steer at the time). It was here where Michael either directed them to open a gate that lead to the cattle truck or a side gate to which the smaller steers that where not quite ready were to go to.
The operation ended when the cattle trucks were full with a final count of 300. There were 30 extra ones that were put into smaller trucks and these were sent back to Mifflin to be picked up by a cattle truck that was to return.
There was a beautiful abandoned little shack nearby, by a small lake. When I eyed it Michael told me, “Avoid it as it's a great place to run into rattlesnakes.
Meanwhile Rebecca was suffering from bad cramps and she had forgotten to bring her Advil. It was about 35 degrees and she could handle the heat (she is as good as her grandfather in this) but she kept telling me, “I want to go home now!” I tried to explain that the job of filling the cattle trucks was an operation that took time and we could not expect Michael to abandon his job for her. At that point she told me she wanted to go to a store to buy Advil. It was difficult for me to tell her that we were really in the middle of nowhere. Michael had heard her crying and he made it a point to ask every cowboy if any of them had the Advil. One, called Hollis (he appears twice here and is wearing a white hat) came to the rescue and the day was saved. By 1:30 we were near Sarita having a Subway sandwich and iced tea. Had I known about the heat and the boredom that Rebecca went through I would not have brought her. I was proud that she was able to take it.
At one point I showed her how Mike and one other cowboy were equipped with a cattle prod. She grimaced. I told her that the cattle prod as we knew it had been invented by King Ranch owner Bob Kleberg Jr. in the late 30s (interesting to find out that Michael East is related to the Klebergs). He connected his primitive devices to car batteries. For some time cowboys had prodded the cattle with spikes which not only hurt the cattle but damaged the hide. It is because of this predecessor of the cattle prod that cowboys are sometimes called cowpunchers.
When Rebecca again grimaced I told her that the son of the famous Argentine writer Leopoldo Lugones, called Polo, had the dubious fame of having first come up with the idea of using the cattle prod (called a picana in my country of birth) to torture men (by prodding them in their genitals) she yelled at me TMI! (too much information).
We dropped off Beto at Falfurrias (a most taciturn man who made the heretofore taciturn Michael seem like a non-stop talker!) and headed home to the Santa Fe Ranch. We arrived around 2:30. This gave Rebecca plenty of time to wind down and cool off in the nice pool that Michael has by the ranch house.