Among The Cowboys


Others argue that the cowboy was created by the aridity of the High Plains. It was too dry for sodbusting; grazing was the only productive use of such land, so the tillers who emigrated from the Midwest became cattlekeepers. The plains historian Walter Prescott Webb leans more toward the market-accessibility model. In regions that are far from markets, the least intensive type of agriculture—running cattle—takes hold.

Whatever its roots, the most amazing thing is how the craft of cowboying has been around for only about 150 years, as the Texas novelist Larry McMurtry points out, and “has been in decline for at least half that time, and has never involved very many people, yet its potency in the American myth is unrivaled.” The core element of the myth is the cowboy’s independence, but McMurtry maintains it’s also that “in the increasingly suburbanized American environment even to think about the pastoral brings a kind of uplift.” Cowboys, moreover, are, like the Bedouin, superb workers: alert, humorous, and subtle. The real cowboy is short on words, courtly, tough as rawhide on the outside, soft as a cow’s nuzzle on the inside. He loved a woman once twenty years ago and never got over it. The hat varies; some have tall, bullet-headed crowns like the arm of a saguaro. The cowboy’s six-gun is a “piece.” Jane Kramer writes: “The farming settlers of our folklore, rattling across the prairie in Conestoga wagons with their hearty, bonneted wives and broods of children, their chests of pots and pans and quilts, their plows and oxen, shared a republican dream of modest property and the rules and rhythms of domestic law. But the cowboy carried no baggage. Like the frontier, he had no past and no history. He dropped into the country’s fantasies mysterious and alone, the way the Virginian arrived one day in his Wyoming town—by right, and not for any reason that he cared to give. With his gun and his horse and his open range, he followed the rules and rhythms of unwritten law and took counsel from his own conscience.”


The Chicano cowboy takes himself less seriously. There’s an expression in New Mexico, Mejor cowboy que cagao (Better to be a cowboy than to have shit in your pants). A Chicano friend told me, “I have always found cowboys to be extremely feminine, with their high-heeled boots, tight pants, and colorful scarves.”

Alan and I reached an oasislike dimple in the prairie known as Bootlegger Springs. Two families, the Romeros and the Sandovals, had come from New Mexico in Civil War-surplus Conestogas and settled here around 1875. They had run thousands of sheep on the south side of the Canadian River, just over the rise, and had homesteaded here at the springs until 1890, when, perhaps driven out or bought out by Anglos, they went back where they had come from. In those days Tascosa, now a section of suburban Amarillo, was the main blowoff town in the Panhandle. All the famous bad men and their nemeses—Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, Frank James, Pat Garrett—had patronized its saloons and its girls. Alan pointed out a wild turkey. “The way we think isn’t something you can shut off,” he said. “It’s not like being a welder, which I was for twelve years. You don’t go home and keep thinking about welding. This isn’t my job; it’s my life. They actually pay me to do this, maybe not as much as folks in town.”


He recited a couplet by the cowboy poet Baxter Black: “She’s a cow and I’m a cowboy/and I guess that says it all.” Then he commented: “But you don’t get attached to cows the way you do to land or horses. Some I get to know and respect because they challenge me, and you feel good when you see them getting fat. But you don’t love them. I don’t feel bad about sending yearlings to their death every fall. That’s what they’re made for. God said go and subdue the earth. We’re not doing this for the cattle.”

Alan and his wife had three children. The oldest was ten. None had ever been to school. His distrust of politics was total: “I don’t think the government can do anything right.”

Jay O’brien gets to his office in downtown Amarillo at five every morning and snaps on his computer, on which he keeps track of twenty-five thousand head of cattle in different places and their estimated daily gain on pasture, wheat, or feed yard, so he can determine things like whether it’s time to bring these cows to the feed yard and can establish the cost of gain and the estimated break-even price should he sell out; cattle are a very liquid commodity. He computes the sale history of all the cattle he has ever owned, so he can do sorts by buyer, feed yard, ranch, or time of year placed or purchased, and decide whether to hedge on a futures contract or sell it or buy it back. “I’m not a soothsayer. I’m a historian,” he explains. But most mornings, before he gets down to business, and before anyone else has arrived, he boots up his novel, which is about modern cowboys and cattlemen, and works on it for an hour or two.