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COWBOY LIFE ON A SMALL SPREAD

Page 2

Barbed Wire Fences

by C. F. Eckhardt
Another thing cowboys did-and do-that you never saw Hoppy or Red Ryder doing, is fix barbed wire fences. Here in Texas we call the stuff 'bobwar,' but our ancestors called it 'The Devil's Rope,' and not without reason. An animal snagged in the stuff will be cut to ribbons trying to escape if somebody doesn't find it, calm it down, and untangle it before it starts to jump and kick.

Bobwar fences come in three types-cattle and horse fences, sheep and goat fences, and hog fences. Cattle and horse fences are the easiest to build. They are simply four or five wires- usually four-fastened to wooden posts with U-shaped nails called staples, which cowboys usually call 'steeples' for reasons unknown. A four-wire fence is the mark of a big spread, where cattle and maybe a few horses are raised. 'Out where the fences are four-wire and the houses are few' means far West Texas, at least beyond the Devil's River and maybe beyond the Pecos, and the pasture part of the Panhandle.

A sheep and goat fence has net wire-not quite as heavy as 'hardware cloth' but heavier than chicken wire-about four feet high for the bottom of the fence, with three or four strands of barbed wire above it. To make that fence 'hog tight' you add a strand of barbed wire to the bottom. The barbs stick a hog's snout when he tries to root under the fence.

We didn't have four-wire fences where I grew up, mostly because everybody had a few sheep and a bunch of goats as well as cattle. Sheep and goats would simply duck under the bottom wire. We also had gates and wire gaps-everywhere but in Texas wire gaps are called 'Texas gates'-instead of cattle guards. Horses and cows will shy away from the uncertain footing of a cattle guard, but sheep and goats find walking on the pipes to be great fun.

Fences require constant maintenance. The contents of a saddlebag-or a pickup's tool box- -always include a roll of baling wire, a sack of staples, a fence tool, and a bottle of Pink Lady screw-worm smear. That fence tool is a wonder. It's pliers, staple puller, hammer, wirecutter, and wire stretcher all in one. At one time it could also, at least technically, get you sent to Huntsville for a couple of years if you carried it off your own place. Until 1973 it was a felony in Texas to be in possession of a wire-cutting tool while off your own premises.

Possession of a fence-cutting tool was, by law, prima facie evidence of intent to cut a fence, the assumption being that you wouldn't be cutting your own fence. I don't think anybody ever actually went to prison for felony possession of wire cutters in my lifetime, but I know of a number of folks who saw the inside of a county jail for 24 to 48 hours because they had something in the car or pickup that would cut wire and the sheriff wanted to hang onto them a while to see what else they'd been up to.

Fences are broken or damaged for a number of reasons, and one of the most common is deer. A sheep and goat fence is about 5' high. Deer can jump higher than that, but every now and again a deer doesn't quite clear the fence with a hind leg. That leg goes between the top and second strand of barbed wire and the wire twists around it, acting like a steel trap. This often breaks the animal's leg. Even if the deer's leg isn't broken, by the time it's found it's usually dead, either of thirst and starvation, or of sheer fright, or it will have torn up the leg so badly that the only thing to do is kill the animal and put it out of its misery. If the animal is a buck with antlers, even if the leg isn't damaged the only thing to do is kill it. If you manage to turn the animal loose it'll turn on you. More than one cowboy who started out to be big-hearted has wound up with an 8" antler- tine puncture in his belly or chest.

After deer, the most common cause of fence damage is falling trees or limbs, followed closely by bulls with high thresholds of pain and raging hormones. A ton or so of bull determined to get to heifers in the next pasture can mess up a half-mile or more of fence going through it headfirst.

Once a fence is damaged it has to be repaired immediately. Temporary repair, particularly for broken barbed wire, is usually a baling-wire splice. The broken ends of the barbed wire are folded into loops. Baling wire is then threaded through the loops, pulled as tightly as possible, and wrapped off. Then a sturdy stick is placed in the loop made by the baling wire and the baling wire is twisted with the stick to bring the wire tight again. Eventually, though, a permanent fix has to be done. That entails pulling the staples from all posts between the nearest reinforced posts or fence corners, resetting the posts, and re-stretching the wire.

Fixing a sizeable stretch of fence with a break in it is an all-day job for at least two men. If they can get help from across the fence, all the better. Fence repair starts when there's enough light to see by in the morning and usually ends when the stars come out. First all staples are pulled on the stretch to be repaired, and all the stays between the posts are cut free. The posts are re-set by straightening them and tamping the posthole fill with the blunt end of a digging bar. Then the net wire has to be restretched, either with a commercial wire-stretcher or a pair of 2x4s bolted together over the wire and pulled to the trailer-hitch ball on the ranch pickup. When the wire is stretched tight enough to sing when tapped with a fence tool, it's time to re-staple it to the posts. This will take most of the morning. After lunch-which is usually bologna sandwiches and water on the pickup's tailgate-it's time to restretch the barbed wire, staple it to the posts, and wire in the stays. Each strand of barbed wire has to be pulled so tight it will sing, then stapled to the posts. When the barbed wire is in place it's time to wire in the stays, which is a two-man job.

Each man is equipped with a fence tool and a roll of baling wire. He stands a stay up against the fence, wires it to the top barbed wire and to the bottom strand of net wire, and then skips a wire, wires the stay to the next one, and so on, until the stay is wired to every other wire in the fence. Then he moves to the next stay. In the meantime his partner has started at the other end of the section, doing the same thing. When they meet in the middle the job is done-and, usually, the stars are beginning to show in the sky.


'Pear,' to a Texas rancher, isn't the succulent fruit of the tree, but the prickly pear cactus. He curses it, grubs it out, and attempts to hate it to death-until dry times... more - Prickly Pear Cactus
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C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
August 30, 2006 column

Related Topic: Texas Ranching

 


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