Ranchlands III, What’cha eatin’ there, son?

We two Bell H-47 Bubblers work together pretty well, crackling the radios only occasionally for a quick warning or to point out some unusual critter or carcass in the pasture. Even though Pardner has only been flying a year, that’s a year’s seniority on me here.

In the 1970s, for the last six years in the Marines, I have earned my “1000 Combat-Free Hours Over Hawaii” patch and a couple of thousand hours elsewhere in the Pacific including Japan, Okinawa and Korea for a day, Taiwan and cross countries across a good part of the eastern US.

Pardner here is a true, legitimate cowboy. Fore sure. He is the strong silent type with a full brush mustache spidering full down over his chin, sweat soaked Stetson hat shaped and cocked just so, and one pant leg always accidentally caught up on the top of the left hand-crafted Lucchese boot. He has been flying a year. A good year. He got he got his Airplane Single Engine Land, added a helo rating, and now eleven months later just went over twelve hundred hours out here over these ranches.

One day near Laredo we are skimming along over desolate scrub brush (I keep describing it that same way because that’s all there is out here!). It is totally flat except for an errant ridge line or two. He calls me and says “Beel, doncha think this is just about the most beeautiful place anywhere on this earth!”

I love Texas. The ranchland is intense and intriguing. But after my six-year flying jaunt (pick one: Mount Fuji, Waikiki and Hula Skirts, Florida’s Emerald Coast) - I’m thinking, “Probably not.”

That was just one of the early examples that Pardner and I just might be on different pages – or more accurately, different books. Besides being very good at this helicopter stuff, his other attributes included being eccentric, stubborn, and gol-durned temperamental. He tries to be stoic and harsh but I decide to like him anyway and just cruise along minding my own business. Then one day, all I had to do was watch ‘n grin--

What’cha eatin’ there, son?
We normally trailer the helos to the ranches. This morning as we arrive at the remote camp before sunup they are butchering the day’s calf at the chow hut.
We are then distracted for some time because my pardner’s chopper won’t start. He’s calling the shots and I easily stay back. After literally charging (jumper cables) through all the starting limits, several times, he sends his gas boy to call the mechanic and commandeers my aircraft and heads out without me to get the cattle moving. I don’t really mind. Right.

A couple of hours later the mechanic arrives. Pardner in my helo arrives back at camp at about the same time. The mechanic walks to Pardner’s helo and reaches down by the seat and pushes the red FUEL SHUTOFF knob IN. The engine cranks right up.

He had gotten caught at just confirming that the red handle was there, rather than confirming its position.

So after the exciting morning, now there are eight of us sitting in the screened hut at a long weathered table eating several types of tender sliced beef and beans and fresh flour tortillas and potatoes. There is also bowl of interesting looking beef pieces that are shaped like orange-slices. They are fried and especially tasty.

During the meal I have thought of several new call signs for my partner and am wondering how much of that errant morning flight time in my chopper he is going to pass along to me. The ranch manager gets my attention and winks at me and hands the bowl of curved fried beef pieces to Pardner again. Pardner comments on how good they are and pops a couple more into his mouth and chomps happily away. The manager says, “Do you know what that is you’re eating there son?”

With his cheeks bulging he shrugs his shoulders and munches, “Some kind of beef, I guess.”
The next sixty seconds starts out slow with a few chuckles around the table and then escalates through a round of subtle half-comments about young bulls and calf fries and finally, mountain oysters. Pardner stops in mid-chew, gurgles a little, jumps up and hauls out the screen door gagging behind the hut. It takes him several raucous rounds to disgorge before staggering out to his truck. For some reason the manager seemed to really enjoy that. I never found out why.

Wild pigs don’t like helicopters; and other notes of significance.
In Hawaii, along some remote beaches there were cordoned valleys carved deep into the mountain sides, with steep vertical-ribbed-walls. The walls start under water and the valleys could only be reached from the ocean in a small boat. Or by helo. Some valleys were wide open with tall-grass. One of our additional duties included official race timing of the large wild hogs in those valleys. Their run time seemed to average about 45 seconds before they thrashed over and said just shoot me.

On the south Texas ranches here, there are several kinds of peccaries. They are all a fun run, especially the sharp tusked pig-like Javelina. They can race full speed for over a minute. Even after they have run out of steam and fallen over they still snap and gnash at you.

A number of exotic animals have been introduced to the area. Nilgai are kinda black and white with very large with hips like an antelope and shoulders like a huge moose and long sharp spiral horns. I think that’s close. During one roundup, the pen was made of vertical railroad tie posts with thick 2x10 cross-beams. A male Nilgai had been running with the cattle and muscled into the full cowpen. Before escaping, it severely slashed several cattle and easily crashed through the stout wooden fence.

Some days on the ranches we see herds of 150 deer with maybe 25 trophy bucks. It’s great fun to drift over and chase a nice buck through the thicket trails. If we spot a coyote we skim alongside the critter and the ranch- hand shotguns it and we stop so he can go hang it on the fence with several others. It gives me a tingling sensation of medicine men and unspoken rituals. This was years ago. Am sure they are more sensitive now.

One day while the rider is hanging a furry warning on the fence I spot a spectacular twelve point buck skull and rack caught under a bush. It has a sixteen-inch spread and is picked clean by the ants and bleached brilliant white by the sun. It hangs at our lake house.

The most unnerving thing I experienced out there was the sold-out unfocused glare in the eyes of a cow coming after me when she got separated from her calf. And I got a good look at them. Early on I made several feints at her to get her moving, maneuvering to maybe bump her rump gently with the skid. But when she decided to come after the helo she wasn’t messing around. She became the total aggressor ready to sacrifice anything and everything, even launching up after me on her hind legs a couple of times. I grew up working cattle with my Dad but never saw anything like that. I had to keep an eye out because even after letting her go and moving on, she still came after me. Mother.
Heading home, the trucks and trailers are about fifteen miles to the southeast. Pardner and I hurdle that way at five hundred feet, each trying to be the first to spot anything interesting. From underneath a golden Bonanza rushes between us and pulls up shouting YEEHAW on our CB freq. Pardner good-naturedly cusses the ranch manager for his unsafe shenanigans, again. They holler other insults and remind each other about meeting at King’s Inn for dinner tonight.

Bill James, Fort Worth VariEze

Next week- Ranchlands IV, The Boss

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