Among The Cowboys

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As with indians (maybe this is a characteristic of cultures in decline), there are traditionalists and progressives among cowboys. If Jay O’Brien was a progressive, Bobby Boston was a traditionalist. He was, in one of his friends’ description, “a gentleman cowboy with the cowboy attitude,” a man’s man, a Marlboro man, as charismatic as Kris Kristofferson and much admired for his slow delivery. He had twice eaten the seventy-two-ounce steak at the Big Texan in an hour. Bobby had lost his ranch because, some said, he wasn’t interested in modernizing or running it as a business and ran a traditional labor-intensive operation that had more cowboys on the payroll than he really needed, just to keep them going. Who bought it? Jay. Everybody said I had to go down to Clarendon and talk to Bobby Boston.

“THE ONLY DOWNFALL IN COWBOYING IS THAT IT DON’T PAY.” JAY DISMISSED THIS. “WHY DOESN’T A SKI INSTRUCTOR MAKE MONEY? ’CAUSE IT’S FUN.”

A picturesque town of white clapboard Victorians an hour south of Amarillo, Clarendon was founded in 1878 by a Methodist minister. Liquor was forbidden, and you had to hang your gun in the hardware store upon arrival. Titled Englishmen owned big ranches outside town, and the first settlers included Ivy League graduates.

Bobby Boston took me to the Bronco Café for chicken-fried steak. A black man in overalls was telling jokes, cracking up two whites sitting at the counter. Race relations in the Panhandle seemed to be extremely retrograde, as if the Civil War, let alone the civil rights movement, had never happened. The blacks in Clarendon lived in what used to be called a colored town, across the tracks in shacks with yards of bare swept earth, with the old people sitting outside in the yards and shooting the breeze, just as in Africa. The Amarillo Country Club did not have black members, as a result of which it had lost the Ben Hogan Tournament, a Junior PGA event. “They told us we had to let in a black, and we told them, ‘Who needs the Ben Hogan anyway?’” a member told me.

 

“Cowboying is the last profession in the modern world you spend in nature,” Bobby observed. “In the old days you might have been out two, three months at a time. The expression on the wagon comes from the chuck wagon that the cowboys ate from when they were on the range. That’s how they sobered up, how they dried out. But now it takes a hell of a lot less cowboys than it used to, and a lot of the old ranches that had oil income are looking more and more at cattle as a business. The big change now is that all the cowboy wives work ’cause the pay is so low, and many of them make more than their husbands.”

A couple of years back Bobby worked with a dude ranch. His main clientele was Germans, middle-class mechanics and such, who belonged to cowboy clubs and were steeped in cowboy lore, knew the old trails and everything. “I’ put the Krauts in boots and jeans and take them out to a chuck wagon on old plugs that were on their last stop to the glue factory,” recalled Bobby. “They slept in bedrolls in tepees. One time we ran into a rattler. I drew my six-gun, and one of the Krauts begged me to let him shoot it, so I did. He was ecstatic. ‘That was one of my two goals in life,’ he said after he had blown the snake away. 1 asked him what the other one was, and he said, sheepishly, ‘To sleep with a black woman.’”

I drove out to Jay’s ranch, The Swamp, and found his foreman, Pecos Hagler (pronounced PAY -cuss HAY -gler), standing in a corral with blood all over his arms. “You don’t want to shake my hand,” he told me. With an electric prod he was maneuvering three- to five-month-old calves one at a time into a hydraulic clamp known as a “processing chute.” After an initial terrible bellow, the clamp would close and the calf would pipe down, the breath having been squeezed out of him, and Pecos would reach down with a knife and castrate him. Then he would brand the calf with an electric branding iron, dehorn him, give him a worm shot, and turn him loose. Calf testicles are known as “mountain oysters” and are considered a delicacy; they are served at the Big Texan. But Pecos said that “after four hundred pairs you get kind of sick of them.”

Pecos had been born and raised on a ranch in Coleman, three hundred miles south. He was twenty-four and had a college degree in ranch management. “It’s fading away,” he said of his profession, “but I don’t think it’s ever going to fade plumb out. There’s very few of the old cowboys and a lot of the new. To me that’s what’s playing out. But you know, everybody has to adjust to something one way or other, and I been real lucky.”