Among The Cowboys


Late in the afternoon we drove around the ranch in Pecos’s pickup, checking the salt licks and to see if any of the calves had gotten themselves stuck in a thicket or into other trouble. This aspect of the cowboys’ work, usually performed after everything else had been done, was called “prowling.” “Each pasture has a name,” he explained. “This is Three-Tree Pasture, named for Three-Tree Creek down there. There’s Initial Rock, River, Horse, Locust Grove Pasture, Troublesome Pasture ’cause it’s hard to get the cattle out, McCormick Pasture after the man that used to own it, Noname Pasture ’cause they couldn’t think of a name.


“Wildflowers are pretty, ain’t they?” Pecos remarked a little farther on, and still later he recited the Southwestern refrain: “We need rain. The grass needs a drink of water. The old-timers say that even when a turtle is crawling uphill, it’s gonna rain.” Then he resumed. “The only downfall in cowboying is that it don’t pay. It costs the shit out of us just to operate. Damn clothes is so high. Saddle’s over a thousand, a rope is twenty-five and you wear out one a month.”

Later Jay dismissed the complaints about the low pay: “Why doesn’t a ski instructor make money? ’Cause it’s fun.”

Horace McClellan, Bobby’s second cousin, was seventy-six and had been a cowboy “just about all [his] life except for four years in the Army”; his family were cowboys on both sides. He took me out to some sandy country Bobby and his brother Jinks were leasing and running nine hundred head on to check on some recently foaled colts.

“Looks like it might rain,” I observed, and Horace said, “Good chance. We can always use rain.

“For thirty years we used to put a wagon out in the spring and come back in the fall. We’d go a couple of months without coming to town. Then we’d come in and get chuck, get a haircut, get civilly [a new word to me, meaning “civilized”]. A good cowboy’s hard to find these days, especially in the younger generations. They’re smarter than we were, got more schooling. There’s a lot more mesquite on the range than when I was a kid ’cause there’s nobody to keep it down, and there’s gettin’ to be a lot of wild hogs. There used to be a lot of wolves. Old Colonel Goodnight gave a fifty-dollar bounty for ’em. I saw one’s head that my daddy killed.

“Bobby breeds cutting horses,” Horace went on, “and I take care of sixteen mares. Nine of ’em just had colts, and a couple more are pregnant. Bobby helps a lot of us down-and-out old-timers. I had both legs broke by a horse falling on me. I’ve had some ribs broke, a shoulder knocked down. I had another horse get knocked out from under me by lightning. It’s a lonesome old job, but I don’t know, there’s something fascinating about it. Riding a good horse in sandy country, sniffing the good old fresh air.…There’s nothing to me like riding a good horse. I never did live in town. Town was never a place for me.”