Among The Cowboys


There was a strict taboo, Alan continued, against crossing in front of somebody who’s working. “If a cowboy wants to talk to another cowboy and he has to pass a third cowboy, he has to go around behind him. Otherwise he is shunned. You learn not to go in front of somebody by the time you’re nine. If you’ve got a guy who says he’s a cowboy—if he’s carrying a rope and advertising that he’s a hand—and he does that, you know he’s not. When you got a poser like that, you don’t talk to him, and he kinda just fades out. You put him cleaning stalls or fencing. I’ll never tell him what he did wrong unless he asks. Most of these guys learn from their dad or uncle. It’s something you just get instilled in you. You’ve got to earn the respect, and once you earn it, you expect it.

“Cowboys are not owners,” he went on. “But in my mind I own as much of this place as the Bivinses or the O’Briens do. I own a piece of everywhere I’ve been.” Alan had been XL’s foreman for the past eight years. I pointed out that the European notion of ownership was alien to the Indians, and he said, “They must have had some sense of ownership; otherwise they wouldn’t have fought the settlers so hard.”

We rode along in silence, and after a while Alan resumed his exposition. “There’s little verbal communication driving the herd; cowboys don’t communicate verbally, plus the next hand may be half a mile away. You have to have a certain instinct to ride fifty head that’ll tell you which cow is going to take off, and that has nothing to do with how you dress and talk.

“You can tell where the herd is from how the horses are facing. And another rule is never turn your butt to the herd. You never know when a cow could run out. I’ve worked with people who aren’t athletic enough to keep their horses facing the cows, and it eats me up.

“There’s a lot of observation in cowboying,” he went on. “You look for a grass with a blue tint—bluestem grama grass—because cattle do best on it. You study manure—how beady it is, or how green—which tells you when it’s time to move the cows. You see when it’s starting to rain. It all boils down to rain, like everywhere else in the Southwest, and to management of what God’s growing.


“Considering everywhere around you, you feel a oneness. Topping out on a ridge and you haven’t seen anybody in forty-five minutes and you’re not even five minutes apart—that’s the oneness. If your partner doesn’t show after a while, you’ve got to find him because this job can get you killed. You get a feeling of the dynamics, the flow of the herd, which is poetry in motion, like a school of minnows or a flock of birds, of its pecking order and its territoriality. They imprint on a water hole, and even if it’s dry, they’ll stay there until they almost dehydrate.”

I picked up some of the lingo: a real cowboy is “real Western” or “real punchy” (as in cowpuncher ; a punch is the metal prod used to drive cattle into stock cars), while a “drugstore” is a cowboy wannabe, who dresses the part. Alan had chosen a gentle “plug” for me to ride after I explained that my lifelong saddle time probably totaled no more than three days.


We checked one of the thirty-eight windmills on the ranch that serviced all but two of its “fairly dependable” water tanks. It was an Aermotor. To turn it off, you pulled the tail from perpendicular to parallel to the wheel. A perpendicular tail keeps the wheel into the wind. Because a really strong wind can blow a tail off, Alan had to check the windmills periodically.

The American windmill was invented in the East, but it was mainly used on the plains. The first windmill, the Halladay Standard, based on the principle of the self-furling sail, came out in 1854. Other approaches included vaneless mills, post mills, tower mills, horizontal mills, mills with wooden blades. Ariel, Empire, Dempster, and the Leffel Iron Wind Engine were among the competitors, but Aermotor was the biggest. By the 1870s metal windmills had been introduced. They supplied water to houses and even entire towns, but domestic use is in steep decline, and these days they’re mainly used for cattle tanks. Many stand in rusting ruin, seeming symbols of a bygone era. But the windmill may come back, wind being the cleanest and least complicated way to generate electricity. There is already a stand of aeroelectric windmills at Altamont Pass, in California, and Steve Baehr, a solar-energy pioneer in Corrales, New Mexico, believes that they are the wave of the future, that before long they will be supplying at least 10 percent of the Southwest’s power needs. Baehr lives on a ridge and has a windmill beside his house. “You grow to love the sound of it creaking,” he told me.