024 Cream Puffs and Branding Irons

Heber is a quiet Mormon settlement with a few stores lining the main street. As Ranger Johnson dropped me in front of the town cafe, the last remnants of activities were being clothed in the deepening darkness. A boy and a girl raced their bikes along the road, stirring up and arousing both dust and barking dogs. A young couple were engaged in shy lovemaking, which didn’t get quite as far as a kiss. Otherwise, the street was deserted.

Two men from the sawmill were drinking coffee in the cafe and, although it was past supper time, the owner fixed me some toast and eggs. Yes, he said in response to my query, he could make a place for me to sleep in a small room off the kitchen.

He wasn’t talkative until, between bites, I mentioned my day at Ryan’s Ranch with the elk.
“Elk! We got hundreds of them around here. Did you chance to see any with the Biglar brand?”
“No brands,” I laughed. “These were wild fellows.”

“I’m serious,” he retorted, and by his tone I realized that he was. “You’re a stranger around here. Guess you haven’t heard about the Biglar Brothers. One of them was just in here couple of hours ago. Too bad you weren’t here to meet him.”

The Biglar Brothers, I learned in the next half hour, were as legendary in the Sitgreaves Forest as Paul Bunyan was in the early day lumber camps.

But these tales the cafe owner recounted were not legends but facts. (I later confirmed them by visiting the brothers personally and seeing them in action.) One legend concerned elk.

Every year, just before the hunting season, the brothers would ride out into the forests and, rodeo fashion, bulldog several elk, brand them with the Biglar iron, then turn them loose. The cafe owner — people called him Jack — told me that hunters, shooting a wild elk and finding it branded, have come back into Heber either unbelieving of what they saw or too scared to tell that they had shot a branded elk.

At breakfast next morning, a small radio, operated by dry cell storage batteries, was puncturing the air with the first formal music I had heard in a month and a half. A sudden impulse struck me. “Want to sell that radio?” I asked Jack.

“Why not?” came his totally unexpected response. Not quite realizing what I had done, I paid him his price along with the rest of my bill. A rancher gave me a ride in his pickup out of town, then by walking less than a mile I came to a place where Ranger Johnson had told me the sheep would be crossing.
Faint, distant bells. A dog bark. The unmistakable bray of burros. Then Pablo on his horse. He and I went along to a forest-fringed cienega and made noon camp. Rosalio soon came with the herd.

I had kept the radio concealed in a gunnysack, courtesy of the Heber Cafe. Several times on the trek Pablo had expressed a yearning for “one of those radio sets,” to bring in some music or news at night. The quiet about the campfire has been such a treasure that I could never have brought myself to the point of introducing a radio into the scene, if I had had to make up my mind to buy one at a store. My impulse query of the cafe owner, and his unexpected response, had taken even me by surprise.
“Maybe you’d like this to sing your burros to sleep at night,” I said casually to Pablo, and pulled the surprise from its hiding place.

Pablo didn’t say a thing — just smiled — and for several minutes examined the set as though he were reading the labels on one of his pails of lard. Then he switched it on. It was tuned to the same Phoenix station which I had heard at the cafe, the only one which came in at all well during the day, in the midst of this forest. The announcer was giving the weather. “Some gusty winds. Clear and sunny everywhere in the state, except for a chance of slight showers north of the Mogollon Rim,” came the voice.

“Hell, that’s here,” grinned Pablo broadly. “But how can he know? No rain here.” I wondered, guiltily, if Pablo’s almanac weather reports, and his coyote forecasts, would be replaced by daily briefings from Phoenix.

Our camp was a cathedral of pines. The noon fire was roaring briskly, for Pablo had built it up to make embers for cooking a pot of beans. The three of us made a triangle about the blaze as we listened intently to the voice coming instantaneously across the wilderness of forests and canyons and deserts over which we and the sheep had been plodding for well over a month. Pablo was using a log for a seat and leaned forward until the cast of the flames brought out the dark reddish-brown in his face until it nearly matched his shirt.

Rosalio lay on his back, feet crossed and a log for a pillow. I was across from him, looking at him through the smoke of the fire. His face was dark, more now like an Indian’s than ever, but when he turned and laughed at something the announcer said — and he laughed often — his gleaming teeth were white marble set in dark mosaic.

“It is now 12:30,” came the voice from Phoenix, “time for the Betty Crocker Hour.” Then a woman’s voice took over. Rosalio and I got up and moved closer to the log where Pablo sat. The three of us bent our ears in deep intensity to the set, as the woman’s voice explained to us in intricate detail how to make cream puffs.

Pablo was hanging onto each word as she listed the ingredients — eggs, flour, butter and boiling water — and the amounts which would be needed for a dozen puffs. “Place the butter and water in a saucepan and place on the front of the range,” she continued. “As soon as the boiling point is reached, add the flour all at once, and stir vigorously.” She followed with the directions for making the cream filling, then concluded with a note of caution: “Unless you are having company for dinner, you should divide the recipe so that you get just six puffs.”

“Hell,” exclaimed Pablo. “We got our burros and my horse, beside Franc-ees. We could eat it all.”
That night, around the fire of another camp, we listened to the Green River Boys, the Rio Grande Rangers, and the Montana Girl, from a station in Clint, Texas. We learned the price of potatoes and flour in El Paso. “Too damn high,” murmured Pablo.

Warnings of frost came from Flagstaff. A barely audible newscast told about the death in an accident of two Mexican men in Springerville, Arizona. Pablo and Rosalio knew them both. “That’s bad,” said Pablo. Soon he turned the set off.

As I went to sleep, there were the soft sounds of bells of the sheep, and a gentle bray of a burro. Later two coyotes set up a two-way conversation in the distance, and an owl hooted gently from a nearby pine. Wilderness music was taking over once more.