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Burros Had Much To Do With Building of the West
Nevada State Journal, November 19, 1922, pages 1 & 2

Jack Bell Tells of Traits of Queer Little Animal
Which Aided Considerably in Development of
This Great State of Nevada; Entire Country
Under Burden of Debt To "Donk"

As Told by Jack Bell
(Copyright by Jack Bell)

The West is under a heavy burden of debt to the burro - that little tragi-comedian of the desert, under whose ragged and motheaten exterior there lurk qualities that have endeared the faithful pack-bearer to every genuine prospector.

The burro is the most misunderstood of all animals, probably for the reason that nature has stacked the cards against him in giving him the outward semblance of a Punchinello. A clown may be a hero, but in the eyes of the world he must always be a clown first. The burro is the strongest (for his size), most faithful and an intelligent animal, yet it is reserved for him to be the butt of coarse-witted and to have neglect and cruelty heaped upon him in the fullest measure.

Helped Develop West

The burro has been the real means of developing the desert West. Without the burro it would have been impossible to open up the great mining industry, which is the basis of all prosperity in the desert region. Occasionally one will hear of an alleged prospector who is quoted as saying that he has been in the prospecting business 30 years and 20 years of that time he has been chasing burros.

Put that man down as one who has no real understanding of the little animal he is so free to slander. There is not an old-time man in the hills who does not love and respect the little fellows who have been constant companions in the hardships and dangerous experiences of life in the unknown places.

Not one, but hundreds of prospectors have the burro to thank for their lives. When hungry, cold, thirsty or lost, it is always the burro that finds the way out to safety and comfort.

The burro is at once a barometer, and a guard aginst the four-legged and crawling menaces of the open. He is a foreteller of storms, and a leader whose judgment never fails. He will invariably guide one to water holes in the bleak places of the desert and will find shelter for his master in the vastness of the mountains. In such crises, that mean the very lives of himself and his packer, the burro never fails.

Nor does he arrive at all these things through intuition, but rather though common sense and actual reasoning power. Whether he turns explorer and thrusts his velvet muzzle into pastures that no other domestic animals has ever grazed upon, or whether he is made the salt-bearer for the flocks of the lowly Mexican herder, the burro is always the same - faithful to death and the chief friend of man in adversity. One thing he must have - companionship. One thing he fears - the bear. Once let him scent any kind of a bear and he will stampede his way through seemingly impassable places until he puts at least a score of miles between him and his one great enemy.

Mouse-Colored Burro Most Lovable

The most intelligent, the strongest and most lovable type of burro is the mouse-colored breed. This burro has the mark of the cross in black. From behind his ears there is a two-inch black streak that runs along the backbone to the end of his tail. The cross is perfect and breaks at the shoulders and extends down his forelegs. Below the cross the front and hind legs are distinctly ringed. He is deep-barreled and his ears are not put out of proportion as in the less admirable breeds.

It is easy to understand the tremendous strength of the burro when it is considered that his vertebra is wider than that of the largest horse. He will carry a pack of 300 pounds in any country with the possible exception of the deep, shifting sands of the desert basins or the great meadows above timber-line, which are merely quicksands covered with a growth of forage grass that is everything but nutritious. As a matter of fact, this timber-line meadows are dangerous to human life when the frost has just gone out of them and they remain soft. When traveling in such a country the prospector invariable leads. If his burro stops and refuses to follow, the experienced man invariably will back-trail with the animal.

The burro is never wrong. He sees danger and cannot be led in it. Yet many a time I have seen some idiot club a burro into some such place. Probably the burro would have been beaten to death but for the interference of some old-timer. When no rescurer has been at hand the burro has taken the chance that has been forced on him with the invariable result that he has foundered and drowned before he could be unpacked and extricated from the morass. It is strange but nevertheless true that the great majority of men who use burros in the hills abuse the animals shamefully, and in almost every case brutal punishment is inflicted upon the burro because he will not follow unreasonable directions.

Select Young Animals

The prospector who is selecting a strong of burros always tries to get young animals. Wherever it is possible at least one colt is taken along. The burro is the most susceptible of all animals to kindness. In a short time the boy burro runs about camp like a well-trained dog. To my mind, there is nothing so fascinating as to watch a bay burro and a dog play. It must be understood that the burro is even faster in his movements and more deadly with his sharp hoofs than the deer, antelope or wild sheep and goat.

The dog and the colt will romp for all the world like two puppies or kittens. They will stand rigid for a moment, with their noses touching. Then begins a series of movements so quick that it is difficult for the eye to follow. Away they go in a wide circle until with a whistle the prospector brings them back to his feet. They will play in this manner for hours at a time. Then the colt will run to his mother and demand lunch. The dog generally follows and will lie down well within the "danger zone" - for this burro tribe can strike with all hoofs at once, and from almost any position. But the mother, with that intelligence almost human, will sniff the dog and in some cases will fondly lap him about the head with her tongue, just as she does her own baby.

The thieving instinct is developed among some burros, just as among some men. Last summer, up above the timber-line where I was camped and where the summer sheep-range was covered with sheep, a burro Raffles caused no end of trouble. With a cunning and intelligence almost unbelievable this confirmed thief would plunder and cover her trail for all the world like an Indian. This burro was a mouse-colored "jinny." Its front feet were clubbed, but in every other respect it was a beauty.

One of the prospectors below had "mushed" down to the store, 20 miles away, for a bit of grub. The country was full of burros, as every herder had from six to eight animals to pack salt and pelts and equipment. I told my neighbor that he had better build a fence about his tent. But he let me know, none too subtly, that he had been too long in the hills not to know what to do and, properly crushed, I let him go on his way, prospecting on the other side of the divide, leaving all his newly-purchased grub in the tent, which was tied closely, with reinforced logs about the bottom.

The prospector returned next day about noon and, as he passed my tent, which was up in the barrens above timber-line, I told him that the whole bunch of burros had been down our way the night before!

"They won't bother me," he replied.

It was not half an hour until he came back up the hill and I could hear his raving and distinguish the word "burro" before he hove in sight.

Burros Had Big Appetite

"Those burros," he said, with several admirably sustained linguistic flourishes, "broke into my tent and ate everything I packed up yesterday. They got away with my flour, sugar, salt and dried fruit, and even searched my bed for grub. And you just ought to see the wreck they have made of the inside of my tent. Lend me some flour until I can go down for grub again."

I noticed that about his tent were the marks of the club-footed burro. That afternoon I knocked off work and put another string of poles on top of my fence, raising it several feet. Along in the middle of the night I heard something fall. I had three tents in the inclosure in one of which I kept my grubstake. I got out in a hurry and there was the club-footed "jinny" right there in front of my grub tent. But, instead of trying to make a getaway, what did that little animal do but come right over to me and begin to nose me for somethng to eat!

She had done no damage, and I just couldn't lay violent hands on her, though I knew she had come in to go through and destroy my grub. She stood there for a minute and then walked over to the bars where the entrance was and seemed to say, "Well, I don't know how I got in here, but I know this is the way out." She had knocked off the top pole and jumped five feet into the yard. Grouped outside and along the fence was my string and also about 20 others belonging to the sheep-herders. It was just like a human "frame-up" for all the world.

For some reason the burro thief never came back to my camp again. But a few nights afterward a herder over the divide passed on his way to town for grub. He said a crippled burro had gone through every particle of grub that he had, and then had even gone into his tepee and had left evidence of destruction everywhere. He was some mad, too.

"Clever as a Fox"

I did not tell him of the criminal's experience with our end of the country. That burro was as clever as a fox. She belonged to a Mormon outfit that had many herds of sheep on the upper reached of the San Juan river. I talked with the Mexican herder about this particular burro and found that he was aware that she was a thief. He told me she would steal everything he had and that when he took his flock out in the morning he had to cache everything eatable and wearable.

"She is the best packer I ever had," he told me, "but wherever I go with her there is always trouble. Only they have never caught her at it, as you did."

I packed out of Farmington, N. M. a few years ago and had a string of six. For the most part, they were packed with water and wood, and my best one carried three bales of hay. I was going into the sand reaches of the desert after borax. That burro I had used back in the hills for years - up where there was plenty of wood and water and feed. He took those three bales of hay the first day all right, with never a whimper. The first morning I loaded him up and the sand was getting bad - up above his hocks. He was the tail-ender.

After travelling about 20 minutes, I looked back over the string. I saw Mister Jack upside down in the sand. I went back and he was rolling his eyes and groaning. I knew he was not hurt and furthermore I suspected that he was trying to "put over" something on me. He wanted that top bale off - that much was plain. I took it off and he got to his feet. All the time I was packing him again he was groaning and swelling out his barrel when I draw up the cinches, his ears being dropped in the most dejected way and his eyes rolling as though he were in the utmost misery. But I threw the big bale on.

When we started again I watched him. He staggered and went down again in the sand. I packed him again and we went another 50 feet, and then down again went the burro. I took the bale off and put it on another burro. Then I piled up all the heavy junk that the rest of them had been carrying and gave it to him. It made at least 50 pounds more than he had been carrying before. But there was not a groan out of him. He even dog-trotted ahead of the bunch after that. At night I found that the bale on top had swung too much and chafed him under the barrel.

Lives Saved by Burros

In the north reaches of Death Valley there are any number of springs - bitter, arsenical and otherwise. Many deaths have been caused by these springs, tenderfoot prospectors filling up with the water when their thirst-crazed burros cannot be induced to wet their muzzles. There it is again. Give the burro freedom and even in that little area of Death Valley, which has been so much written about - a joke to the old prospectors, by the way - he will invariably lead to good, sweet water. Sometimes an old prospector has an accident and loses his water.

He may not know exactly where the next water hole is located. We will start on the trail and turn the jacks loose. Down through the canons, across the sands, into the red hills, and through the pure white miles of alkali, they will surely lead their master to sweet water. It has been done countless times. Not only that, but they will keep right on and lead out into a grass country somewhere.

A remarkable thing about the burro is that he never fails to remember a country that he has once been over. He will always take the exact line of his previous march.

A little kindness and a bit of salt or sweets of any kind will never fail to win a burro. If you feed him at noon he will invariably be back at the same time and at the same spot. It is hardly necessary to say that all these stories about a burro living on tin cans and rubbish are nonsense of the rankest kind. What he does fool around with is a can for its the sweet taste from the paste used in putting on the wrapper. This same reason applies to any paper that has salt or sugar sticking to it. He is inordinately fond of both of those things.

There is but one vegetable he will not eat - cabbage. He will find good, nutritious forage where any other animal would starve. There is a certain cats' claw on the dessert that he will actually fatten upon and he will take a chance at cactus if he is forced to it. Cactus is really fine forage, but hard to masticate on account of the spines.

Faithful Packbearers are Most Misunderstood of All
and in the Eyes of the World He is But a Clown;
is Faithful and Intelligent, Writer Says

Have Remarkable Vision

When a blizzard is brewing, although the weather conditions at the moment may seem perfect, the burro will make for shelter. If it is in the mountains where there is timber, he will find a well sheltered place on the edge and remain there until after the storm. On the desert he will at first become restless. He starts away from camp, then returns, and then starts away again, and almost always he will have his ears plastered down to his neck. The veteran prospector knows that there is either a severe sandstorm coming or a blizzard with snow dust.

The remarkable vision of these animals is another revelation to anyone who is not familiar with them. A burro will sight an object far beyond the vision of man. The animal will stand for an hour at a time with his ears pointed in the direction of the object he has seen and the man knows there is some living thing within the animal's range of vision. By remaining beside the burro the man will be able to make out the object after a while. It may be a bear, a horse, cattle, or a human being, but the little burro will see it long before it is visible to his master.

The burro mother rises to the tragic when she is defending her young. I have seen the mother of a young colt standing on the defensive when near a mountain lion - and the mountain lion, be it known, is mighty particular to any kind of colt meat, whether horse or burro. The jinny will circle round and round her young, roaring out a cry for help with the peculiar call of the burro, which means such a joke to the tenderfoot and so very much to the prospector.

It will not be long until another burro, or perhaps a couple of jacks will show up. They will form a ring about the colt and it is not once in a thousand times that a wolf, coyote or lion will take a chance when there are two or more burros to fight. The burros' actions are lightning and their aim, with hoofs and teeth, is perfectly accurate, adn the result is death.

Mysterious Birth

Burro motherhood is worthy of a nature book in itself. The little burro colts arrive mysteriously, and no man, not even the Mexican herder, knows when or where. On the day the new arrival is expected the burros will assemble for miles in every direction. The jacks stand on the high places and give forth the call, which is passed along. It was shown last year that a burro visitor to the birthday will come 25 miles.

Then, about the time the little burro first sees the light of day, there is a bellowing by the big herd that can be heard for miles and for hours at a time. This is their manner of expressing joy that a baby has been born and that all is well. Last summer I went up into the hills at midnight - a moonlight night at that - and began to search for the jinny and her colt. The big herd shut up instantly.

I prospected all night and the next day had the assistance of three Mexican herders. It did not avail us, and the hiding place of the jinny up there in the snow spruces was never found. One of the herders has been in the hills with the flocks for 40 years and said he had never been able to locate the hiding place of a burro under like conditions.

Animals Love Warmly

But the big herd wandered about the vicinity, no doubt as a guard against the possible visit of a mountain lion or any other foe, because the burros wandered in regular order for all the world like a military guard. On the third day I found the mother and colt. And how that whole herd loved the little jackrabbit specimen of an animal! The burros would walk round and round the colt, sniffing and curious. The whole big band of burrows followed the mother and the little fellow every minute of the day and night. There is no other animal that loves the young as does the burro. And when the little colt begins to kick and bite his elders in play, the delight in burroland reaches its climax.

That the burro has reasoning powers is shown in many ways. Take, for example, when the prospector is about to move camp. The lead jack has a bell. When he comes into the camp he sees that preparations are being made for packing the outfit. Quietly the burro turns and wanders off into the buck brush or stands in a clump of thick growth in the big timber. His bell is of the large cow type. The prospector may go within a foot of him without hearing a sound, the burro standing still as a statue. He will even graze and not move the clapper of the bell.

When his master has gone on the long circles for him the burro may or may not wander back to camp. In many cases he will remain in the same spot where he has hidden himself for hours. Then all at once he changes his mind and will shake his head and the bell, of course, will summon his owner. Then the burro, with the most innocent expression in the world, trots back to camp and lines up for his pack.

Have Visiting Mania

Still another thing is common - so common that it is rarely spoken of in the hills - and that is the visiting mania the burro has. It is not for the pickings he may find about another camp - it is curiosity, pure and simple. Then again, he will go the apex of a hill and sound his call. If there is another burro within hearing distance he will get an answer. Then he will drift over to the stranger, or bunch of strangers, as the case may be. The burros will sniff each other and playfully chew necks.

They will feed, and change ends, and fight flies, but when the evening comes the visiting burro will say good-bye to his new acquaintances and go back to his own camp. Perhaps the very next morning will find all the new acquaintances about one's camp, standing stolidly and with ears pointed forward, seemingly intent upon finding out what sort of man the owner of their new friend is. Then, when they have stood for hours looking around the camp, they will start grazing, at a sign from the leader of the bunch, and thus the entire outfit will go on its way.

Fight a la Mexico

When burros fight - and very often two jacks will meet in combat - it is vicious and blood-letting in the extreme. With teeth and hoofs they fly into the fray like demons. There is not a sound except the clatter of
their feet and the snapping of their all-powerful jaws. It is give and take for many minutes, and then the weaker recognizes defeat and will start away, limping and bleeding from the attacks of his more powerful adversary. The victor never follows. It seems to be an understood thing that when the loser has cried enough, that ends the fray. There is none of the bellowing or like noises of victory made by other animals. The burro that has won the fight is the boss, but he does not advertise the fact.

The boss knows he is boss and he does not trade upon it. The loser is even permitted to join the band at once and there is no squabbling and no showing by the winner that the fracas has ever occurred. In case of danger from coyotes the burros who engaged in combat will stand side by side against the common enemy.

The burro craves kindness. His love for small children is proverbial. His sense of smell is just as well developed as his wonderful sight. Under fair treatment he will prove forever faithful. Some day the mountainous desert country which he has been so instrumental in developing will build a monument to him. A monument of gold would not be too great a tribute.

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