MoboReader> Literature > Arizona Sketches

   Chapter 3 THE OPEN RANGE

Arizona Sketches By J. A. Munk Characters: 13277

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Arizona is in the arid belt and well adapted to the range cattle industry. Its mild climate and limited water supply make it the ideal range country. Indeed, to the single factor of its limited water supply, perhaps, more than anything else is its value due as an open range. If water was abundant there could be no open range as then the land would all be farmed and fenced.

Arizona is sometimes spoken of as belonging to the plains, but it is not a prairie country. Mountains are everywhere, but are separated in many places by wide valleys. The mountains not only make fine scenery, but are natural boundaries for the ranches and give shade and shelter to the cattle.

There are no severe storms nor blizzard swept plains where cattle drift and perish from cold. The weather is never extremely cold, the mercury seldom falling to more than a few degrees below freezing, except upon the high plateaus and mountains of northern Arizona. If it freezes during the night the frost usually disappears the next day; and, if snow flies, it lies only on the mountains, but melts as fast as it falls in the valleys. There are but few cloudy or stormy days in the year and bright, warm sunshine generally prevails. There has never been any loss of cattle from cold, but many have died from drought as a result of overstocking the range.

The pastures consist of valley, mesa and mountain lands which, in a normal season, are covered by a variety of nutritious grasses. Of all the native forage plants the gramma grass is the most abundant and best. It grows only in the summer rainy season when, if the rains are copious, the gray desert is converted into a vast green meadow.

The annual rainfall is comparatively light and insufficient to grow and mature with certainty any of the cereal crops. When the summer rains begin to fall the rancher is "jubilant" and the "old cow smiles." Rain means even more to the ranchman than it does to the farmer. In an agricultural country it is expected that rain or snow will fall during every month of the year, but on the range rain is expected only in certain months and, if it fails to fall then, it means failure, in a measure, for the entire year.

Rain is very uncertain in Arizona. July and August are the rain months during which time the gramma grass grows. Unless the rain falls daily after it begins it does but little good, as frequent showers are required to keep the grass growing after it once starts. A settled rain of one or more days' duration is of rare occurrence. During the rainy season and, in fact, at all times, the mornings are usually clear. In the forenoon the clouds begin to gather and pile up in dark billowy masses that end in showers during the afternoon and evening. But not every rain cloud brings rain. Clouds of this character often look very threatening, but all their display of thunder and lightning is only bluff and bluster and ends in a fizzle with no rain. After such a demonstration the clouds either bring wind and a disagreeable dust storm, or, if a little rain starts to fall, the air is so dry that it evaporates in mid air, and none of it ever reaches the earth. In this fashion the clouds often threaten to do great things, only to break their promise; and the anxious rancher stands and gazes at the sky with longing eyes, only to be disappointed again and again.

As a rule water is scarce. A long procession of cloudless days merge into weeks of dry weather; and the weeks glide into months during which time the brazen sky refuses to yield one drop of moisture either of dew or rain to the parched and thirsty earth. Even the rainy season is not altogether reliable, but varies considerably one year with another in the time of its appearance and continuance.

The soil is sandy and porous and readily absorbs water, except where the earth is tramped and packed hard by the cattle. One peculiarity of the country as found marked upon the maps, and that exists in fact, is the diminution and often complete disappearance of a stream after it leaves the mountains. If not wholly lost upon entering the valley the water soon sinks out of sight in the sand and disappears and reappears at irregular intervals, until it loses itself entirely in some underground channel and is seen no more.

Many a pleasant valley in the range country is made desolate by being destitute of any surface spring or running brook, or water that can be found at any depth. Occasionally a hidden fountain is struck by digging, but it is only by the merest chance. Wells have been dug to great depths in perfectly dry ground in an eager search for water without finding it, and such an experience is usually equivalent to a failure and the making of a useless bill of expense.

A never-failing spring of good water in sufficient quantity to supply the needs of a ranch in the range country is of rare occurrence, considering the large territory to be supplied. Only here and there at long intervals is such a spring found, and it is always a desirable and valuable property. It makes an oasis in the desert that is an agreeable change from the surrounding barrenness, and furnishes its owner, if properly utilized, a comfortable subsistence for himself and herds. His fields produce without fail and the increase of his flocks and herds is sure.

The isolated rancher who is well located is independent. He is in no danger of being crowded by his neighbors nor his range becoming over stocked with stray cattle. His water right gives him undisputed control of the adjacent range, even though he does not own all the land, which is an unwritten law of the range and respected by all cattlemen.

Because of the scarcity of water the range country is sparsely settled and always will be until more water is provided by artificial means for irrigation. Even then a large portion of the land will be worthless for any other purpose than grazing, and stock-growing on the open range in Arizona will continue to be a staple industry in the future as it has been in the past.

The range is practically all occupied and, in many places, is already over stocked. Where more cattle are run on a range than its grass and water can support there is bound to be some loss. In stocking a range an estimate should be made of its carrying capacity in a bad year rather than in a good one, as no range can safely carry more cattle than it can support in the poorest year; like a chain, it is no stronger than its weakest link.

A good range is sometimes destroyed by the prairie dog. Wherever he establishes a colony the grass soon disappears. He burrows in the ground

and a group of such holes is called a dog town. Like the jack-rabbit he can live without water and is thus able to keep his hold on the desert. The only way to get rid of him is to kill him, which is usually done by the wholesale with poison. His flesh is fine eating, which the Navajo knows if the white man does not. The Navajo considers him a dainty morsel which is particularly relished by the sick. If a patient can afford the price, he can usually procure a prairie dog in exchange for two sheep.

The Navajo is an adept at capturing this little animal. The hunter places a small looking-glass near the hole and, in concealment near by, he patiently awaits developments. When the prairie dog comes out of his hole to take an airing he immediately sees his reflection in the glass and takes it for an intruder. In an instant he is ready for a fight and pounces upon his supposed enemy to kill or drive him away. While the prairie dog is thus engaged wrestling with his shadow or reflection the hunter shoots him at close range with his bow and arrow--never with a gun, for if wounded by a bullet he is sure to drop into his hole and is lost, but the arrow transfixes his body and prevents him from getting away. He has been hunted so much in the Navajo country that he has become very scarce.[1]

Much of the ranch country in southern Arizona is destitute of trees, and shade, therefore, is scarce. Upon the high mountains and plateaus of northern Arizona there are great forests of pine and plenty of shade. But few cattle range there in comparison to the large numbers that graze on the lower levels further south. What little tree growth there is on the desert is stunted and supplies but scant shade. In the canons some large cottonwood, sycamore and walnut trees can be found; upon the foot hills the live oak and still higher up the mountain the pine. Cattle always seek the shade and if there are no trees they will lie down in the shade of a bush or anything that casts a shadow. The cattle are so eager for shade that if they can find nothing better they will crowd into the narrow ribbon of shade that is cast by a columnar cactus or telegraph pole and seem to be satisfied with ever so little if only shade is touched.

Twenty years ago before there were many cattle on the southwestern range, the gramma grass stood knee high everywhere all over that country and seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of feed for an unlimited number of cattle during an indefinite term of years. It was not many years, however, after the large herds were turned loose on the range until the grass was all gone and the ground, except in a few favored spots, left nearly as bare of grass as the traveled road. At the present time whatever grass there is must grow each year which, even in a favorable year, is never heavy. If the summer rains fail, no grass whatever can grow and the cattle are without feed. The grass about the springs and water holes is first to disappear and then the cattle must go farther and farther from water to find any grass. When cattle are compelled to travel over long distances in going from grass to water, they naturally grow thin from insufficient food and are worn out by the repeated long journeys. A cow that is thin and weak will postpone making the trip as long as possible--two, three and even four days in the hottest weather she will wait before attempting the trip. At last, when the poor creature reaches water, she is so famished from thirst that she drinks too much. In her feeble condition she is unable to carry the enormous load of water which she drinks and lies down by the side of the friendly water trough to die from exhaustion.

If cattle are turned loose upon a new range they act strange and are inclined to scatter. Until they become accustomed to the change they should be close herded, but after they are once located they are not liable to stray very far.

As they are only worked by men on horseback they are not frightened at the sight of a horse and rider; but let a stranger approach them on foot, in a moment after he is sighted every head is raised in surprise and alarm and the pedestrian is, indeed, fortunate if the herd turns tail and scampers off instead of running him down and tramping him under foot in a wild stampede.

Nowhere else can be found a finer sight than is witnessed in the range country. In every direction broad meadows stretch away to the horizon where numberless cattle roam and are the embodiment of bovine happiness and contentment. Scattered about in irregular groups they are seen at ease lying down or feeding, and frisking about in an overflow of exuberant life. Cow paths or trails converge from every point of the compass, that lead to springs and water holes, on which the cattle travel.

It is an interesting sight to watch the cattle maneuver as they form in line, single file, ready for the march. They move forward in an easy, deliberate walk one behind the other and may be seen coming and going in every direction. They make their trips with great regularity back and forth from grass to water, and vice versa, going to water in the morning and back to the feeding grounds at night.

Cows have a curious fashion, sometimes, of hiding out their calves. When a cow with a young calf starts for water she invariably hides her calf in a bunch of grass or clump of bushes in some secluded spot, where it lies down and remains perfectly quiet until the mother returns. I have many times while riding the range found calves thus secreted that could scarcely be aroused or frightened away, which behavior was so different from their usual habit of being shy and running off at the slightest provocation. The calf under such circumstances seems to understand that it is "not at home," and cannot be seen.

At another time a lot of calves are left in charge of a young cow or heifer that seems to understand her responsibility and guards her charge carefully. The young calves are too weak to make the long trip to water and thus, through the maternal instinct of the mother cow, she provides for the care of her offspring almost as if she were human.

After viewing such a large pasture as the open range presents, which is limitless in extent, the small fenced field or pasture lot of a few acres on the old home farm back east, that looked so large to boyish eyes in years gone by, dwindles by comparison into insignificance and can never again be restored to its former greatness.

[1] This statement is made on the authority of Mr. F. W. Volz, who lives at Canon Diablo, and is familiar with the customs of the Navajos.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top