The Cowboys, Frank and the Americans

Two grizzled men rocked and smoked on the porch of the weathered farmhouse in the Sonora Desert. Robert and I were tired, famished and relieved to find people on that empty stretch of Mexican highway. We coasted off the tarmac and climbed off our heavily loaded bicycles. The men watched our approach with no suggestion of surprise, as if bicyclists pulled off their highway every day. The ruts we crossed indicated that truckers frequented this lonely restaurant, identified only by the rusty Coca Cola sign on the side of the house.

Stretching my limited Spanish, I greeted them and received nods in return. I jutted my chin at the red metal sign and asked if we could buy a meal. The solid, dark man with cowboy boots and a leather jacket waved us inside without a word. A smaller man with old-fashioned high-topped Keds, smiled and nodded.

The Road Into Mexico

We had ridden eight hundred miles in a month on sturdy Peugeot bicycles, fifteen speeds good for long flat stretches and able to pull us up most hills. It was the mid-seventies, and spandex and panniers were not yet available so we improvised. Our forty pounds of hiking gear were carried in our Kelty backpacks that were strapped horizontally above the rear wheels of our bicycles.

Earlier in the day, a cool headwind had arisen that had desiccated our skin, dried our eyes, worried our clothes and rattled our nerves. We had begun to despair ever finding our goal for the day, San Luisito. It was a dot on our map south of Sonoyta on the Arizona border from where we’d mailed the last of our winter clothes home. We passed the ruins of adobe farmhouses and heaps of weathered and broken wood invaded by the sage and rabbit brush that filled the desert to the horizon, broken only by the occasional tall cactus. At last, the old farmhouse emerged from the sea of waving gray-green shrubs and we hoped it was San Luisito. It would have to do even if it wasn’t our destination. After fifty-seven miles of pedaling that day, we had to stop.

Parked Bikes

We parked our bikes next to the porch in their praying mantis position, the front wheels pointed skyward and anchored by the weight over the rear wheels. Inside the house, a large and rugged dining table with six heavy chairs filled much of the front room. The matronly hostess greeted us, sat us down and from the top of her six-burner wood stove at the back wall she dished up plates of the day’s dinner:  rice, tortillas and beans topped with crumbled white cheese.

Later, sated and content, we paid the few pesos requested and joined the two men who were still rocking on the porch. Robert knew no Spanish but communicated well using pantomime and belly laughs. We answered the same questions we had encountered at other stops. Where we had started the trip (en Portland, Oregon en el noroeste de los Estados Unidos, which I could rattle off easily by then) and where we were headed (Columbia, en Sud America).

When I asked for a place to camp for the night I was too tired to understand the answer from the man with the boots. My confusion was apparent and the smaller man introduced himself in English as Frank.

“My friend Jesus says you can use the inspection station for the night if you’d like. And tomorrow you are welcome to watch his men work the cows over there in the corral.” He pointed across the road to a slow-turning windmill rising above the dry shrubbery.

Jesus led us to the small concrete room across the highway. He seemed surprised that the inspection station was locked and he had no key. No problem. We pointed to our gear and told him we could camp under a comfy bush. We found a spot where the brush grew shoulder high and set up camp. As I was unrolling my sleeping bag, Jesus found us, admired our little nylon tent and approved of our site. Then, he ambled off toward the windmill where cows were bawling. Robert’s eyes lit up. An ex-dairy farmer, the bovine commotion called to him. When I finished my journal entry, I followed. Outside the corral, several dusty cowboys slapped their lariats on their thighs and whistled to keep a small herd of cows and calves moving toward the corral where more rangy stock were milling.

Roping Calves

In the corral, three men on foot separated the calves from the cows and bulls and put them in a smaller pen. Knowing the cows would not stray far from their babies, the men left them to wander in the larger corral, leaving the gate open for last minute arrivals. I watched the operation through the fence for a while, full of questions. The men wore casual shoes, not boots, and I wondered if they were going somewhere after the work was done. Were these their only shoes? Had they been drafted from less arduous tasks for this evening’s work?

Jesus supervised from the side with a boy who looked to be about ten. He waved me over and introduced his son, Hernando, who hid behind his leg. He laughed at Hernando and then pointed to a little shed at the base of the windmill where Robert and Frank sat on wooden boxes, picking their teeth and gazing into a flaming metal bucket.

Robert saw me approaching and scooted up another box. “I followed the bawling and found Jesus over here building a fire in this bucket for Frank, so I gave him a hand. Then, he went to watch the work and Frank showed up, so here we are.”

Frank glanced my way and then studied the flames.

“Frank says Jesus lets him sleep in the ranch tack room to be near water but he’s mining up a draw nearby.”

That piqued my interest but the cowboys began to ride in, their work finished for the evening. They dismounted, dropped their reins and hauled the heavy saddles off their sturdy horses. They threw them onto the wooden frames in the tack room next to Frank’s cot. As one rider approached, I noticed that his mount had an unusually broad brow band. Frank saw my interest and explained that it was a green horse, still spooky. Before dismounting, the rider slipped the brow band down over the horse’s eyes to calm it while he stripped the tack off.

Hernando came over, sat on the ground next to Frank and watched us closely. After asking him his age, our conversation ground to a halt when I could hardly hear his soft voice and couldn’t understand his replies.

Frank was a retired cowboy-miner from Arizona who lived off a small pension and spent winters in Mexico looking for gold. He was working a small placer mine up the valley. He was 72 and could not work inside the mine any more and was waiting for a man from a nearby village to help him, but the man was several days late in arriving. Frank didn’t seem too worried but he was eager to show us the mine if we stayed a while the next day. Always open to opportunity, we accepted the offer.

We bid good night to Frank and returned to our camp. Pedro, one of the young cowboys, stopped for a chat. I had exhausted my Spanish vocabulary by then and was slipping in a few Swahili words left over from my two years in Africa, which really confused him but he didn’t seem to mind. He was mostly curious about our bikes and our tent, which we were happy to show him.

In the morning, we arose early, ate breakfast and walked to the corral. The cowboys were already roping the calves in the small pen. They brought them out into the larger corral where the mothers milled restlessly and bawled for their babies to relieve their full udders. We joined Frank on top of the rough-board fence. Robert had brought our tape recorder and taped the bawling, for posterity he said. We’d only been married two months and I had a lot to learn about him, including the inner workings of the mind of an ex-dairy farmer.

When a mother was identified, Jesus marked it down so he would know which cows were producing calves. The mother was roped and snubbed to a post and the calf was allowed to suckle a little milk and then was pulled off and tied nearby. While the newest calves were ear-cut for identification, another cowboy reached between the mother’s back legs, fending off her switching tail, and squirted some milk into a tin pitcher. Then, mother and baby were reunited and released. Most cows cooperated, but some fell down on their knees or side, struggling and kicking at the men.

“It’s important to handle the calves at this stage or they get wild and mean,” Frank said. I wondered if the uncooperative cows were ones that had not received enough of the handling when they were young.

“I’ve worked many cows in my day,” Robert told Frank. “I want to tell you that these guys have a lot of self control. That sort of behavior from a cow normally provokes blasphemy.”

As the men worked, Frank explained, “These tough cows wander the dry desert, seeking out whatever browse they can, and can go for up to three days without water. But then they have to return to this corral and this tank, the only water for miles. When Jesus and his hands need to vaccinate or brand or market their herd, they just put a man on the gate twenty-four hours a day until they all arrive, and pretty soon they have the whole herd.”

The work was finished by mid-morning. The gates were opened and the herd trotted into the desert. Frank beckoned and we followed him up a rutted dirt road for about twenty minutes. The mine was a shaft, a hole, dug into the ground where the top of a crude ladder protruded. With effort, a man could stand on the bottom and work a shovel into the hard ground, but it was not big enough to swing a pick easily. The framework for a winch straddled the hole and a rope plunged into the shadows beside the ladder. Frank grabbed it and hauled up an empty bucket and stood it to the side.

“This mine is about twenty feet deep and nearing bedrock where the real color will be found, but now I can’t work it myself. Used to be I could climb down, dig a bucket full, climb back up, pull up the bucket, empty it and go back down. I’ve been at it a few years now, and I know this is a good place.”

He must have seen our glances at each other because he continued.

“You can tell by how the gravel is sitting right here in the gully. But now days, my old knees are complaining. That ladder’s gettin’ to be real steep and this deep, it goes real slow. It really needs two men, one in the pit and the other up here hauling.”

He smiled at Robert, a loaded, pleading smile. Robert returned a strained grimace.

Frank’s nephew had come down from Arizona to help him the week before and Frank had a small pile of gold-bearing ore to sift. He wanted to show us the whole operation. To extract the gold from the dry lumps of mixed rock and dirt, Frank smashed the conglomerate in the pile with a small hammer. Then he pitched it onto a screen, two layers of half inch mesh nailed to a frame that was  propped up at a forty-five degree angle. After the pile was sifted, he tossed away the rocks he had screened out and picked up the dust on the other side and put it into his sorting machine. It looked a lot like the sluice boxes I’d seen in old movies of gold miners set up next to a stream, except there was no water here and I hoped no one would get shot by claim jumpers that always intrude into the movie plot.

Frank and his Gold Mining Equipment

The contraption was a rectangular box with a canvas bottom mounted on an incline. Wooden bars were attached across the canvas. The dust was put into a funnel so that it dribbled onto the higher end of the canvas. Frank grabbed a long arm at the side, which was attached to a bellows I hadn’t noticed, and pumped it up and down. Only then did I notice that there were holes in the floor of the contraption beneath the canvas, and with Frank’s pumping, the air blew up through the canvas. The lighter particles were blown over the bars and moved down the incline to catch on the lower bars or fall off the end onto the ground. The heavier pieces, the gold, remained, caught behind the top bars.

Frank pumped and grunted until the funnel was empty. With his gnarled hand, he brushed off and discarded all of the dust from the lower bars. He put the dust caught by the top two bars back in the funnel and sifted it through again. Then he collected the diminished amount of material behind the first and second bars and put it in a traditional gold mining pan, bigger than a dinner plate with a wide sloping rim. He swirled the pan and blew, shook, and brushed the rocks away, flipping out the sand sized particles until only the heavy gold was left.

With a satisfied smile, Frank reached into his pocket and took out a metal film canister, licked his pinkie and touched it to “the color” which he called the gold flecks in the pan. He showed us the four precious grains, glinting on the end of his finger. We stared at them, uncertain what reaction he was expecting. All that work for four specks of gold?

Then Frank carefully scraped them into his canister, which held at the most an eighth of a teaspoon of dull gold at most.

“Oh, it doesn’t seem like much, I know, but this color shows this is the right spot. In a foot or so, we should reach the bottom of the stream bed where the main deposit is.” The man was an optimist.

Frank was certain his mine location was a sure thing and he just needed another person to dig and then they’d both be rich because the strike would come when they hit the bedrock on the bottom of the old streambed. While he talked, he looked Robert up and down, measuring his relative youth and vigor. Robert listened, avoiding eye contact. Frank tried to sweeten the oblique proposition by mentioning several places where large nuggets had been found worth $200 to $350 per chunk in sites just like his. But, of course, that occurred once in many years, he felt obligated to add. The time for the next big strike was at hand, if only he could go that last foot or two to bedrock.

Robert was polite but noncommittal.

Frank asked Robert to think it over, never having mentioned what “it” was.

On returning to the ranch, we washed our hands in the windmill trough, scooping the sweet water over the side to keep the muddy dirt on the ground since that trough was the only source of water for the whole ranch.

At lunch, a battered pan half-full of the morning’s milk sat on the back of the woodstove where it kept warm. By evening, it was cottage cheese, which the family was delighted to share with us. It was delicious.

Later that evening in our little camp, I was writing in my journal and Robert was playing back the cow recordings. When I heard him giggle I looked up to see five curious cow-faces poking through the bushes.

The next day we happened to be up before the cooks so we waited for breakfast by Frank’s bucket fire. We were surprised to hear Hernando, the little boy who had hung around us the previous day, actually talk. In fact, he was rattling! He had been admiring Robert’s hunting knife and brought out his own jackknife to show him. I winced as he gripped the handle with the blade half open. I hoped the blade was dull because it could so easily snap shut on his little fingers, but nothing dire occurred. Robert admired his knife, and Hernando flashed a broad grin at the acknowledgement.

While we were eating our hearty breakfast of eggs, beans and tortillas in the farmhouse, a large motor home pulled off the road and rolled up to the edge of the porch. The couple inside opened their bus-like door and talked with Jesus, who then came inside and said something to Pedro.

After paying for our meal, we wandered out to see what was happening.

The forty-foot motor home with California plates was fairly new, and hitched to the rear was a car with two Honda motorcycles on the back of it. Gregarious Robert poked his head in the door and got them chatting. They were elderly snowbirds who had spent the winter on the warm Mexican coast and were returning north. They invited us inside for a cup of coffee and we accepted even though we had just finished some at breakfast. The coffee was ready and she chatted for a bit, pointing out the features of their motor home for conversation. They carried sixty gallons of water and had their own purification system and had spent two months in a trailer camp in Mazatlan.

She gave us two pamphlets to guide our spiritual way while we waited, which was a shock. What had we gotten into here? Did they do this with everyone they met, or did our slightly grubby appearance mark us as people in need of conversion?

The motor with the problem was located in the hump between the driver and passenger seats, and accessed from inside the motor home. While we pretended to read their literature, they debated whether to let Pedro inside to solder something. They decided he could enter, since they did need the work done.

It seemed to me that they lived in a very sterile state, unengaged with the Mexicans, or us since she didn’t as us many questions, except for passing us the Good Word. Robert asked if the church sent them. No, but they were passing on the blessings given them by the good Lord as they always did when they traveled. The Pedro rushed out of the farmhouse with a hot loldering iron and she joined him in front to keep a close eye on him.

We watched amiable Pedro run back and forth from the back of the kitchen to the motor home. Each iron was a heavy brass block attached to a metal handle with a wooden grip and he wasn’t able to do much soldering before the iron cooled. Then he had to return to the kitchen stove for another of the irons. It probably was a simple job, but with the equipment available, it was tedious.

Given their apparent reluctance to trust the Mexicans, I was a bit surprised they were friendly to us, since we were looking a bit rugged after our windy and dusty ride. But maybe we had the right color of skin, and spoke their language. Or maybe it was because Robert could charm almost anyone. They did give Pedro some of the spiritual pamphlets when he had completed the task. Amen to good works.

After the motor home pulled back onto the highway, we bid goodbye to everyone as well. I felt a bit of remorse, something I often feel while traveling, that pull to see what else is over the horizon even though where I am is interesting. It would have been fun to stay to get to know the family, though the cow sorting was over and the ranch work seemed to be calming down.  The clincher came when Robert said it could quickly get a bit sticky with Frank wanting him to work the mine.

We had other adventures ahead of us.