Among The Cowboys

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Besides being a character, Stanley is “practiced at receiving Easterners,” in the description of Jane Kramer, whose book The Last Cowboy explores the relationship between one of Amarillo’s new breed of college-educated cattlemen—a friend of Stanley, actually—and his hands. The man breaks his word after shaking on a deal, demonstrating his contempt for the way things had always been done. This was in 1977, and there was a lot of resentment about how the new cattlemen, with their concern about dollars and cents, were killing the old cowboy way of life on the range. It had become more economical to shoot the steers full of hormones and keep them in feed yards, standing in their own dung, than to turn them loose on the prairie.

Between amarillo and as Vegas, New Mexico, there are still a number of very large working ranches with working cowboys. Stanley introduced me to Jay O’Brien, a major cattleman, and his wife, Lucy. “Jay went to Yale. He’s a smart-ass,” Stanley explained. “He’s all business.” Or as one of Jay’s hands put it, “He works his mind and his butt off.” Jay and Lucy took me to a working-cowboy rodeo. Hands from fourteen ranches that belonged to the old families—including Corsino, XL, Bell, Fork Bitter Creek, and Frying Pan—were competing. Among them were Jim Bob Walton, Pecos Hagler, Burl and Monte Hollar, Chris Craft, Rick Furnish, Tom (“Boots”) Blasingame, Tommy Thunderbird, and the former world champion Tuffy Thompson. A color guard of mounted cowgirls bearing the Coors-beer, Lone Star State, and American flags kicked off the evening. The events included steer and calf roping (the former around the neck, the latter around the legs), mugging (wrestling an animal to the ground and tying three of its legs together), team penning (cutting out a heifer), and bronc riding (“You just try and keep your ass on,” Jay explained). “Did you see the move that horse had on him?” a friend of the O’Briens asked after a beautiful gray mustang from an Indian reservation in Alberta bucked Monty Cluck twelve feet and pawed him above the right eye. Jay introduced his foreman, an English-literature and biology major from Virginia, who had been to graduate school in animal science: a modern cowboy.

“Some herd with four-wheelers these days,” Jay told me as the awards—saddles and spittoons—were being presented. “But without the horse there is no cowboy, and the mounted cowboy is still irreplaceable. He isn’t going to vanish any time soon. A lot of this country we run is so rough.

“Generalizations don’t work any more with cowboys than with anyone else,” he continued. “Some are drifters. It’s very valuable to have someone who sticks because he cares for the ranch as if he owned it. Sometimes there are repeated generations, like Monte Hollar; his dad was on the ranch. But I don’t think you’d get much out of him. You’d have to draw out every word.” The women in the stands were chicly dressed in designer jeans and jewelry, and the men all had Stetsons and boots. Jay introduced me to Ninia Bivins, whose son he was partner with on one ranch he was working. Ninia’s grandmother acquired—in partnership with “Colonel” Charles Goodnight, who invented the chuck wagon and pioneered the Goodnight trail to Denver—almost a million acres of ranchland, including Palo Duro Canyon.

Sunday morning Jay and I drove out to his ranch in a Silverado. We stopped at Taco Bell to pick up some sixteen-ounce “thirstbusters” of Diet Coke. There were a lot of false storefronts in downtown Amarillo. This was a drive-up society; food, fuel, cash, booze, a last look at a departed loved one could all be done from your car—but the town also had American classics like the Double Dip Drive-in, Doug’s Bar-B-Que, and Feferman’s Army-Navy Store.

 

“My grandfather put together eighty thousand acres in New Mexico,” Jay told me, “and he was just a cowhand. But he lost most of his money in the Depression, so I understand land lust and loss, the sense of stability that land gives you, even though the ownership that any of us have is limited. A lot of ranches out here have been overgrazed. If you own, you’re less likely to overgraze. To me there’s no greater high than turning a place around, buying land—getting the asset—and making it work and improving it, feeling connected to a working landscape.

“The land in the West has always represented opportunity,” Jay went on. “It’s been a safety valve for people. I sometimes wonder whether Kennedy started the space program just to compete with the Russians or whether he also did it to extend the frontier, all the land in the West having been spoken for. Americans aren’t used to restricted opportunity. It doesn’t sit well.”

Jay told me about the modern scientific approach to raising cattle: “What you’re doing is converting cellulose to protein, and the more you move cattle, the less weight they gain. It takes a while for cattle on the range to sort out their social order and to get comfortable at a water hole. We graze them on grama and buffalo grass for eight or nine months. To bring one seed cow with her calf to weaning, it takes eight months and fifteen to thirty acres of pasture. Then we take them to the feedlot, where they eat corn and milo [sorghum]. Twenty-five percent of all the nation’s cattle are fed within a hundred miles of Amarillo.”