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Stories by Mike Humfreville

The Tempests of Summer - Bahia de Los Angeles 1985, Part 9: Billy and Burlap    ( Posted May 19, 2004 )

One afternoon we had gone to the village for a visit and for tortillas from the tortilla-maker, Marie Elena, and were talking at her house, from which she supplied the village with her homemade product. She told us about a ranch, well out into the desert on the road to San Francisquito, where they raised goats. Occasionally they brought several into the village to sell. She suggested that we should get a goat, that they were hearty desert animals and would be fun for the boys. A few days later we talked about it and decided to make the trip to see what there was to see.

This ranch, San Pedro, is many kilometers south of the village, enough that it was a drive of at least two hours and into a very remote part of the desert. The roads were almost impassible in anything other than a two wheel drive truck and hard work in four, much of it in low range. The boys were tired of riding and banging their heads on the sides and roof of the truck long before we got there. We hadn't told them we were going there to look at a goat. This was the same road Mary Ann and I had taken on our first stay and it led 120 kilometers down the peninsula to San Francisquito.

Several kilometers after the turnoff for Bahia Las Animas, an hour out of the village, a small track joined ours from the west. We took this and many kilometers later at the head of a ravine where it encountered the sierra we found the ranch, sitting atop a hillock and well out of the dry riverbed. The house itself was a randomly hammered collection of short boards and twisted pieces of ironwood and cottonwood that had collected from time to time in the creek-bed after a storm. There was a small artesian well that provided enough water for the three ranchers, two men and a woman, two children about Michael and Kevin's ages, and numerous cattle. Behind the house was a small corral containing a few goats. This excited the boys, who went immediately to the corral, joined by the other children.

We asked if they had any goats for sale and they said that we could buy any we wanted. We walked with the men back to the corral and asked the boys if they would like to get a goat to take back to Las Cuevitas, which, of course, they would. Mary Ann and I negotiated with the ranchers over the purchase while Michael and Kevin ran off to play. We settled on a price of about $25 and called to the boys to come and pick out which goat we would take.

"Mom. Dad! Come see what we found!" They called from across the property. We all walked to the other side of the house, where the ranchers had a donkey tied to a tree. This animal was smaller than any donkey I had ever seen. It was gray-brown with a silver cross running along its back and down both sides of its chest. The ranchers told us it was a Messiah Donkey and would grow no larger than it was presently. The boys were already in love with the tiny animal and Mary Ann and I, too, found it hard to resist. I asked how much they wanted for it and we settled the deal at about $20 immediately. Curiously, they wanted more for the goat than the burro. But when I thought about it, they would eat the goat, but not the donkey.

Now the problem was getting our new pets back the many kilometers and hours to Las Cuevitas.

I rearranged the supplies in the back of the Land Cruiser. We could get the young goat, a Nubian, in easily, but the burrow was another matter. We lifted him up and he balked at climbing into the back of a covered utility vehicle. When we persisted, pulling him with his rope from the back seat and pushing him from behind, he grew so confused and uncomfortable that he resigned himself to settling in the rear of the truck. He could not quite stand, so he tucked his hooves under his chest and lay down. This was our first understanding of the intelligence of donkeys.

We bumped and bounced our way over the long dusty track back toward the bay, through the village, where we stopped to show Marie Elena our new pets and to buy some hay, and went on to Las Cuevitas and our hut. It was a long day for us all and we were tired, including the animals.

It was late afternoon by the time we got there. We spent the daylight we had left modifying the chicken coop to include room for a burro and goat. We put a bail of hay in one corner where they could graze whenever they wanted. The chickens seemed confused at first but confronted with such large animals, soon adjusted and climbed into their roosts where the goat and donkey didn't care about them. Somehow we arrived at the names of Billy the goat and Burlap the burro.

The next day they were wanting out of the pen as soon as they heard us stirring. Burlap brayed until we let them loose. We were now confronted with deciding how to keep them from wandering off into the desert. We had learned that this was not a problem with fowl; once they settled in an area they would forage and scratch it over all day and always return to the safety of their roost at night. Particularly since that was where we fed them. But we knew nothing about the habits of goats and donkeys.

We decided to keep them tied up behind the hut for a few days and then see what they did when we let them loose. They didn't like the ropes around their necks, but tolerated them and every day we gave them a greater length. After the third or forth day we left the ropes tied to their necks but untied them at the other end, leaving a long length trailing behind them in the dirt. They wandered, but never far, and we could tell where they were from the rope tracks. Soon we found that it was Burlap that made the decisions as to where they went; Billy always followed behind. Now we released Billy's rope, leaving Burlap with the burden, which he seemed to have adapted to anyway.

Our homestead was growing and so were our responsibilities. We had to feed the chickens daily but that was simply a matter of making sure they had water and throwing out mash and grain once a day. We dug a small shallow hole a distance behind the hut into which we put our garbage. The chickens kept this clean for us. Billy and Burlap could go to their pen whenever they wanted alfalfa and they wandered the nearby hills, foraging, every day.

When we went into the hut for the last time at night, we dropped a piece of plywood across the doorway that kept Lassie from getting out during the night. We hadn't had problems with foxes, wolves, mountain lions or coyotes, but we knew they were around. We weren't expecting trouble, but there was no point in taking chances. We heard coyotes calling nearby many nights. I kept a twelve-gauge shotgun loaded with birdshot (with a trigger guard locked in place) under my bed.

A few days after the first snake incident we decided it would be a good idea to clear the area behind the hut of the small brush and rocks so we would discourage small animal from crossing the cleared area and entering our hut. I spent an hour or so each morning clearing the land, before it was too hot for such work. This was hard but rewarding work. I was still waiting to settle into Baja mode so I didn't mind the daily objective and I was in those days still used to living in the city, with a city lot and grass right up to the cement in an organized arrangement and no place for weeds. So I started raking at the several hundred square meters beside and behind our hut. This was an effort that occupied me for several days. When that was done I was on a roll and arranged the larger of the rocks I had removed from the area into a line that defined it. I'm not sure what our "area" was, or who I was defining it to, but nevertheless I did it. I was too used to structure.

By somewhere around the end of our second week at Las Cuevitas we had built the hut, bought a half dozen chickens for eggs and built them a roost, brought Billy and Burlap from the desert ranch, extended the roost into a corral, cleaned up the area around the hut and built a large staircase. I felt like we had accomplished a lot. The worker in me declared a vacation. Besides, there was nothing left that needed doing.

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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