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Cooking for a Stove-Up Cowboy

“Is this a raisin?” my late partner Quentin Hulse asked. Quentin was a retired rancher, hunter, outfitter, and guide. There was a moistened raisin resting on the middle tines of the fork he held over his plate.

Frustrated by a new computer program as secretary at Reserve’s high school, I’d been teetering on a learning curve all day. “At least I can cook,” I thought as I contemplated that evening meal. Someone had given us elk meat. We also had zucchini from the plants Quentin cultivated in old tires sawn in half beside the house. What to do with those ingredients? I found a recipe for spicy Moroccan lamb casserole. Elk could surely substitute for lamb just as zucchini could replace yellow squash. Saffron would not be added, but the other ingredients were on hand. Onion, garlic, flour, bouillon, cinnamon, raisins, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. I would serve it on rice, a staple Quentin liked.

At the age of twelve Quentin had been cooking for a rancher in New Mexico’s southwest—Gila National Forest country with its high mountain pastures, deep canyons, intermittent streams, and gravel roads. His fare no doubt was all “cowboy”—fried potatoes, beans with salt pork, red chili, beef, and sour dough biscuits. During our four-year alliance Quentin stepped up and cooked the signature cowboy classics like beans with salt pork, red chili, posole with hominy and pork, and menudo with pigs’ feet.

That particular evening he contemplated the raisin his Yankee cook had added to the elk but said no more. If Quentin didn’t like something I presented, he simply put red chili on it. He was smart. Cowboys know that complaining about the food results in two possible outcomes. One, the tired hungry hand wouldn’t be fed. Or two, the complaining cowboy would cook.

Cooking for Quentin was a dream. I learned he had no interest in artichokes, nor did he like smoked oysters. When I returned from a western publishers’ meeting in Snowbird, Utah, I brought him a jar of boyson berry jam.

“Have you had this before,” I asked.

“Lots of times,” he replied. “I damn near foundered* on it.”

Raisins with elk notwithstanding, Quentin was pleased with the meals I prepared. Every once in a while he’d ask me to prepare something special. Corned beef and cabbage one St. Patrick’s Day, for instance. The first Thanksgiving we celebrated together he wanted cornbread stuffing for the turkey and reminded me to use sage.

“Man, oh, man,” he said when I placed mashed potatoes, gravy, butternut squash, cranberry sauce, green chili, and the roasted turkey with cornbread stuffing before him. He paused, then said “Betty Crocker would walk a mile,” and reached for the platter of turkey.
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*If a horse eats too much grain, it can lead to founder and become lame. There are other causes as well.

Not Chanel N° 5

Didn’t I create a stir when I approached the counter at the Reserve post office that Monday morning? I wanted to buy stamps. I was wearing jeans and a bleach-speckled navy blue tee shirt. What’s the problem?

I stank.

Bad.

To high heaven.

At least to the post office ceiling.

On my eight-mile post office trip to mail letters and buy stamps, I had relocated a trapped skunk in a remote area off the highway. In the video demonstrating the use of the D&D skunk trap I purchased, the farmer transported his trapped skunk to a distant new neighborhood in the back of a pick up. I drive a slightly dented 2004 Subaru Legacy Outback with ample room to accommodate my D&D trap containing the young adult skunk. I felt so smug as I hoisted the trap by its handle into the back. The design, a three-foot long aluminum cylinder, eight inches across, prevents a stinker from raising its tail to the tell-tale position: SPRAY.

How could I possibly have anticipated that the odor of Mephitis mephitis would so effectively penetrate everything I was wearing? And the interior of my car? I was blissfully unaware that my relocating project left me Olfactorily Offensive. I breezed into the post office, blithely as you please, only to face the assistant postmistress who immediately recoiled.

Ho! Ho! How funny, we both agreed. The postmistress hesitantly moved forward from her desk to participate in the laughter. Less than ten feet from me she detected the odor and stepped back. Then my masseuse arrived wanting to greet me. I signaled her with crossed index fingers.

“Are you sick?”

“No. I moved a skunk.”

The scent I carried was not the nauseating smell skunks spray when threatened. Oh, no. They smell bad standing still. So did I.

At home, I left the split, torn running shoes I wear for dirty work at the door, stripped in the back hall, and threw my clothes in the washer. Then I showered, washed my hair, and changed into less odiferous clothing. Next I opened all the doors and windows in my car and placed charcoal briquettes inside.

The following morning the smell in the back of the car was still strong. I added a full bag of briquettes in that area and ordered three gallons of anti-icky poo (an enzyme-based product I’d researched before) to rid the skunk odor beneath the house.

Natural history books cite small rodents, birds’ eggs, fruit, grubs, and beetles as skunks’ preferred diet. The D&D trap site mentions their fondness for scrambled eggs with chocolate syrup. I used that for bait, and some really smelly dried cat food, and dribbled a tempting trail of kibble to entrance of the trap.

Point of information: The collective noun for skunks is “surfeit.”

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Classic Books about Southwestern New Mexico

These books capture the derring-do, hardship and wonder of living on this patch in New Mexico prior to its more populous settlement. There is lovely detail in them–a prospector’s pet bear cub. Reading a newspaper in the wilderness in the light of a full moon. A girl playing cards all night with possible cattle thieves, to deter them from stealing her family’s cows. A boy emerging from cow camp with body lice. My favorite is a description of such a huge herd of antelope on the San Augustin Plain the llano seemed covered by moving sands.

The Ben Lilly Legend. J. Frank Dobie. The story of the legendary Ben Lilly, Gila Wilderness hound man and hunter. (non-fiction) University of Texas Press.

Black Range Tales. James A. McKenna. McKenna’s accounts of early prospecting and Indian raids in the Gila Country are a valuable resource. (non-fiction) High-Lonesome Press, Silver City, NM.

Cow Dust and Saddle Leather. Ben Kemp with J. C. Dykes. Mrs. Kemp introduced watercress into the streams of the Gila Wilderness and National Forest. (non-fiction) University of Oklahoma Press. Out of print.

Meet Mr. Grizzly: A Saga on the Passing of the Grizzly Bear. Montague Stevens. Catron County’s own British-born “remittance” man: Stevens’ writing about grizzly bears, training hounds, and ranching can’t be beat. (non-fiction) High Lonesome Press.

No Life for a Lady. Agnes Morley Cleaveland. Mrs. Cleaveland’s autobiographical work about growing up on a cattle ranch near Datil. (non-fiction) University of Nebraska Press.

Open Range: The Life of Agnes Morley Cleaveland. Darlis Miller. This complements Mrs. Cleaveland’s autobiography and provides detail about her adult life. (non-fiction) University of Oklahoma Press.

Old Magdalena Cow Town. Langford Ryan Johnston. “A glimpse into the romantic life of the typical southwestern cowboys” during the first half of the twentieth century. (non-fiction) Bandar Logs, Inc.

Recollections of a Western Ranchman. Captain William French. One of the area’s classics of cattle ranching lore, Indian raids, the Elfego Baca gunfight, and Butch Cassidy’s days at the WS Ranch, just north of Alma, NM. (non-fiction) High-Lonesome Press.

The Sea of Grass. Conrad Richter. The wonderful operatic saga of a cattle baron and his family, set on the San Augustin Plain when cattle was king. (fiction) Knopf, out of print. There was a 1947 movie with the same title, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburne with supporting actors Melvyn Douglas, Phyllis Thaxter, and Edgar Buchanan.

Slash Ranch Hounds. Dub Evans. “Mr. Dub’s” tales of the hunting and hounds at the celebrated Slash Ranch. High-Lonesome Press, Silver City, NM. (reprint of a formerly scarce title)

Tales from the Bloated Goat: Early Days in the Mogollons. H. A. Hoover. Hoover’s reminiscences about life in Mogollon begin with his diary entries in 1904. Burros were employed when moving furniture from house to house. (non-fiction)High-Lonesome Press, Silver City, NM.

Quentinisms

My late partner Quentin Hulse whom I wrote about in Gila Country Legend was well known for his colorful, graphic speech. His stringent, pithy expression spoke volumes. My fondness and appreciation for such precise and colorful speech began when I was very young in Narragansett, Rhode Island. My father once referred to a friend’s adolescent daughter as a “page from a loose-leaf binder.” However my sensitivity to words originated, it led to delight in such as “mud luscious and puddle wonderful,” fog arriving on cat’s feet, feathered hope, and winters that could be “medievally cold.” I appreciated the color and eloquence of words I read and the speech I heard around me.
Quentin’s conversation was never dull. One woman was “meaner than a red-assed spider.” My two favorites concern Apache raiding and Christ. Nineteenth-century Gila Wilderness settlers were always subject to Apache attack. When this was mentioned, Quentin pronounced that he’d rather have been “a ribbon clerk in St. Louis.” An image of Quentin Hulse behind a counter in a dry goods store wearing a starched collar and sleeve protectors boggles the mind. Appropriate appearance: fine. Genial, accommodating customer service: unreliable. My other favorite was: “He doesn’t know if Christ was crucified or rode himself to death on a bicycle.”

Living with that colorful speech and humor is it any wonder that I compiled a list of expressions Quentin used that I’d not heard anywhere else?
“The spoiledest brat God ever strung a gut in.”

“We leave before the crow pisses.”

“She smoked that marajuana like Bull Durham.”

“That dog wouldn’t bite a biscuit.”

He could “tear up an anvil in a sand pile.”

When asked how things were: “Cats’ all heads and the chickens all feathers.”

“He’d fight Joe Louis if you’d ring a bell.”

“They’d scare a bulldog off a gut wagon.”

“He would steal **** from a blind coon and kick him for growling.”

“I’ve been shearing sheep and picking strawberries.”

Wild Gila cattle had “wrinkles coming off their horns they were so old.”

Old squirrels for a meal was “like taking a truck engine out and trying to fry it.”

“He had enough ammunition in those saddle bags to fight a Mexican revolution.”

“You can see his shadow and tell that he’s a rancher.”

“As busy as a cat in a rock pile.”

“You’d complain if you were hanged with a new rope.”

“That family was run out of Texas for stealing skunk hides.”

“Just as silly as a pet coon.”

“Like the sheik said to his eunuchs, ‘Just one more cut.’”

“There’s worse things in life than dyin’.”

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Reaching the Snag

Coming from Rhode Island to southwestern New Mexico twenty-six years ago, I was eager to find a Coggshall saddle. Wisconsin-born Charles E. Coggshall, whose family dropped the “e” from the name, established the Coggshall Saddlery in Miles City, Montana, in 1895. Regarded as the Cadillac of saddles, they were well known in the West’s northern states, and cowhands in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico prized them as well.

I’d heard that a saddle maker in Apache Creek might be able to help me. I drove the eighty-some miles south-southwest from my home in Magdalena to talk to this man. He couldn’t help me with my quest. The goal was never reached. I’ve not seen a Coggshall saddle yet.

More rewarding, however, was the sight of the country around Apache Creek in the Tularosa River’s valley, lushly green from the summer’s monsoon rains. My eyes widened. “This could be Vermont,” I thought, which was quickly followed by “I wonder what it would be like to live here.”

Ten years later I moved to a spot along the Tularosa with a view of the Apache Mountains to the north and petroglyphs on cliff walls a mile away. Reserve is the seat of Catron County, the largest in New Mexico, covering some 6,923.69 miles. Much of it is within the Gila National Forest. Only seventeen percent is privately owned, the rest in the hands of various branches of the federal government and the state. In the last census 3,725 residents were counted. The population of the town itself numbers a little more than 300 souls.

(For more information about the area, see “Big Bucks” under the tab for Research Projects on the home page.)

So here I am. I write in a room approximately 35 yards from the base of a snag pine tree that has lost many of the limbs I first saw reaching horizontally sixteen years ago. Yet its silhouette remains stark against  twilight skies.

This free-range blog will be updated every two to four weeks. There is bound to be the odd spin-off from my book Gila Country Legend: The Life and Times of Quentin Hulse, along with notes on aspects of life in this area. And most probably comments on books.

“The isolation of Catron [County] and its vast wilderness is (sic) what makes it such a delightful place to live,” Susan E. Lee wrote. “You have plenty of elbow room.”*
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*These Also Served: Brief Histories of Pioneers…Short Stories and Pictures Relative to Catron, Grant, Sierra, Socorro and Valencia Counties of New Mexico. Los Lunas: Susan E. Lee, 1960