Among The Cowboys

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Jay had Black Anguses, red Herefords, and Charolais crosses on eighty thousand acres at XL.

He pointed out how much more flowering yucca there was in the highway’s right of way than over the fence, where some steers were grazing. “Cattle love yucca. They eat it like candy. Yucca flowers are high in protein. Cowboys call it soapweed.” We passed the Canadian River’s “breaks,” where the capstone had been broken by the water, and turned into the XL Ranch. It was May 17, and the river was already down to an interbraided trickle. Jay said that sixteen years before, when he first leased the ranch, he had laid off a third of the range the first year. “Studies show that grazed land does better if it is periodically rested. But this was a big investment, because we were leasing every acre.”

The High Plains were in blazing bloom. Jay took out a field guide from his glove compartment; he was teaching himself the wildflowers. We waded out into a field with slowly rocking oil pump-jacks interspersed among rashes and splashes of yellow goldenrod, evening prim-rose, orange caliche mallow, tandy aster, a mint called coast germander, Indian blanket, wild gourd, plains verbena, locoweed, white poppy, Lambert’s crazyweed. The year 1992 was a banner one for wildflowers. “I’m just flabbergasted by the yucca. The term riot of color honestly applies at times.”

Alan Tapp, xl’s foreman, gave me a mounted tour of the ranch the next day. We set out at 7:00 A.M. The plains were alive with birds and wrapped in thick, wet mist that quickly burned off to blue sky. We rode past a calf pen. “We’re a yearling, or stocker, operation,” Alan explained. “There are only a few breeders left. These calves came in from Lake Okeechobee, Florida, yesterday. It’s a three-day ride. We’re keeping them here on feed and watching them real closely, doctoring them and vaccinating them and sorting out the sick ones. They’ve been without food for thirty-six hours, so you have to get their rumens healthy again. We’ll pasture them till November, then put them in a winter wheat pasture through March, then they’ll be finished off in the feedlot, then they’ll be processed.”

“WE HAVE SIX HORSES APIECE.…SOME ARE BETTER SUITED FOR DIFFERENT THINGS.…A YOUNG HORSE IS JUST LIKE A CHILD: ANY HABITS IT ACQUIRES ARE YOUR FAULT.”

We talked about cowboys. Alan said, “There are all sorts of cowboys, just like everybody. I feel it’s a dwindling art. There’s not a lotta young kids coming up that want to do this, and with technology and stuff there’s not as many required. But still you gotta get on the horse and work the cattle. There used to be bachelor camps and drifters—true misogynists, who loved their horse more than any woman—but no more.” Alan had a rope on his saddle, but he didn’t use it much. “We don’t stress the animals with rope; we keep them in line with our horses. A horse that can sort and push animals into a pen is important, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.” There were regional differences in roping techniques, he explained as we ambled along. “Some cowboys dally; they wrap the end of the rope around the saddle horn after they’ve thrown it. Others tie on before. If you dally, it’s safer, because if it gets hung up, you can let go. But you could lose the rope.”

Alan was thirty-two, with a thick black mustache and the hair under his black hat already gray and a deep red face, almost purple from the sun. His family had been in the cattle business for four generations. He had gone early into cowboying.“ It’s what I always wanted to do,” he said. I asked why. “’Cause you’re dealing with nature. You’re dealing with what God made. I mean I don’t know how to explain—it’s a feeling you get when you’re on top of a rise or look out at all these soapweed blossoms and when you’re cutting out a cow and it’s trying to get back in the herd and your horse does just what he was born to do, you have nothin’ to do with it, you’re just sitting up there. There’s something out here.…We don’t have a lot of faith in preachers with their fire and brimstone. We’re alone a lot but never lonely. Most of us prefer it. It’s more like pragmatism, an appreciation of the Tightness of it.”

“Tom Blasingame [who had competed at the rodeo] said one time a cowboy’s a cowboy because of horses. If you take away the horse, there is no cowboy. We don’t necessarily like the cows, but we love our horses. But if a heifer is having a calf and she’s in trouble in the middle of the night, we go out and help and stay with her. You develop a fondness for all life just watching baby calves playing.

“We have six horses apiece. Like humans, some are better suited for different things. Some horses excel at sorting [also known as cutting], others at roping. Some have endurance, others have a lot of go to them. A young horse is just like a child: Any habits it acquires are your fault. A rodeo is man and horse on display. You take pleasure in another person’s horse being quality. Cowboys are not competitive. A cowboy never tells another cowboy he screwed up. Talking about this is abnormal. You don’t run it right in front of a man. And your word is your bond.”