- Historic Sites
Among The Cowboys
September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
The biggest roadside attraction along I-40 is the row of ten classic Cadillacs half buried, at the angle of the Great Pyramid, with tail fins upthrust, at Stanley Marsh’s Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. The models range from 1946 to 1964. Marsh told me he wanted them to look as if they had been planted by members of some high civilization.
The biggest roadside attraction along I-40 is the row of ten classic Cadillacs half buried, at the angle of the Great Pyramid, with tail fins upthrust, at Stanley Marsh’s Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. The models range from 1946 to 1964. Marsh told me he wanted them to look as if they had been planted by members of some high civilization.
Marsh’s brother was a friend of mine back East, and in the spring of 1992 I drove from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I lived at the time, to Amarillo to visit Stanley. He had said he would introduce me to some cowboys. “You’ll have to drink with them and f— with them for at least a month before you can begin to understand what they’re all about,” he warned. Heading east on 1-40, I passed Zuzax, New Mexico, filing it away for the next Geography game. There was already a billboard in Moriarty for the Big Texan, Amarillo’s largest restaurant, which offers a free seventy-two-ounce steak if you can eat it in an hour. On past Pastura and Colonias, Endee, and the motel-rich Tucumcari, and after a while the interstate ascended to the vast tableland of the Texas Panhandle known variously as the High Plains, the South Plains, and the Staked Plain (supposedly because early Spanish explorers pounded stakes at intervals so they could retrace their way). The earth by now was so flat you could see that it was actually curved.
THEY CARRY ON AN ELEMENTAL AMERICAN TRADITION THAT IS SURPRISINGLY RECENT AND HAS BEEN DYING FOR HALF THE TIME IT’S BEEN ALIVE
This was the area Capt. R. B. Marcy dubbed in an 1849 report “the great Sahara of North America.” On the High Plains the distance between water could be eighty miles. There was little relief, apart from the dramatic gash of Palo Duro Canyon, where the Red River rises and the Comanches had one of their major encampments. The Comanches would return triumphantly to the canyon from raids in Mexico with bananas and parrot feathers. Then, in 1874, Col. Ronald MacKenzie drove off and killed their pony herd, which was almost two thousand strong, and marched the stunned Comanches to a reservation in Oklahoma. By then caravans of prairie schooners and Conestogas were rolling across the plains, and buffalo hunters were taking as many as a hundred skins a day. After the plains were cleared of buffalo and Indians, cattle were moved in and the range was fenced with barbed wire.
SOME RANCHERS HERD WITH FOUR-WHEELERS, JAY SAID, BUT “THE MOUNTED COWBOY IS STILL IRREPLACEABLE. HE ISN’T GOING TO VANISH ANY TIME SOON.”
The stench of thousands of cattle in the feed yard at Wildorado, just west of Amarillo, was detectable even at seventy miles an hour. Then Stanley Marsh’s Cadillacs, painted baby blue, hove into view.
I found Stanley, a jovial, rubicund fifty-four-year-old, playing croquet in his office, which took up the entire top floor of the Team Bank Tower, the tallest building in town, soon to be the First Bank Tower (Team Bank being one of the notorious recently failed savings and loans). The building’s name had changed a dozen times since Stanley had been up there, monitoring Amarillo and the world. “The Texas Panhandle is kind of like Uruguay,” he told me, “and Amarillo is the capital of it. We make no finished products except for atomic bombs, which we are the only source of, but I feel like everything that comes in and out of here I should get a percentage of. My secret ambition is to persuade the Panhandle to secede, and I would become its dictator.”
Amarillo (named for the yellow flowers that bloom on the banks of its creek in spring) was an insignificant cow town and buffalo-hide depot (the roof and partitions of its first hotel were made of buffalo hides, which were in much more plentiful supply than lumber) until it became the junction of two railroad lines in 1874, whereupon it boomed. It had a whole street of whorehouses. Bankers and aristocrats from London and Edinburgh bought up much of the Panhandle and created vast cattle kingdoms. Oil was discovered in the Panhandle in 1921, natural gas a few years earlier, but the gas didn’t have much value until World War II, when German U-boats were sinking oil barges that departed from Galveston and an overland route was needed. A big oil pipeline that could also deliver natural gas was opened to St. Louis. “Natural gas is real efficient if millions of people are together,” Stanley explained. It made his father, Stanley junior, a fortune, which enabled Stanley III to devote himself to being a character, and as one of his friends told me, he works hard at it.
Besides being a character, Stanley is “practiced at receiving Easterners,” in the description of Jane Kramer, whose book The Last Cowboy explores the relationship between one of Amarillo’s new breed of college-educated cattlemen—a friend of Stanley, actually—and his hands. The man breaks his word after shaking on a deal, demonstrating his contempt for the way things had always been done. This was in 1977, and there was a lot of resentment about how the new cattlemen, with their concern about dollars and cents, were killing the old cowboy way of life on the range. It had become more economical to shoot the steers full of hormones and keep them in feed yards, standing in their own dung, than to turn them loose on the prairie.
Between amarillo and as Vegas, New Mexico, there are still a number of very large working ranches with working cowboys. Stanley introduced me to Jay O’Brien, a major cattleman, and his wife, Lucy. “Jay went to Yale. He’s a smart-ass,” Stanley explained. “He’s all business.” Or as one of Jay’s hands put it, “He works his mind and his butt off.” Jay and Lucy took me to a working-cowboy rodeo. Hands from fourteen ranches that belonged to the old families—including Corsino, XL, Bell, Fork Bitter Creek, and Frying Pan—were competing. Among them were Jim Bob Walton, Pecos Hagler, Burl and Monte Hollar, Chris Craft, Rick Furnish, Tom (“Boots”) Blasingame, Tommy Thunderbird, and the former world champion Tuffy Thompson. A color guard of mounted cowgirls bearing the Coors-beer, Lone Star State, and American flags kicked off the evening. The events included steer and calf roping (the former around the neck, the latter around the legs), mugging (wrestling an animal to the ground and tying three of its legs together), team penning (cutting out a heifer), and bronc riding (“You just try and keep your ass on,” Jay explained). “Did you see the move that horse had on him?” a friend of the O’Briens asked after a beautiful gray mustang from an Indian reservation in Alberta bucked Monty Cluck twelve feet and pawed him above the right eye. Jay introduced his foreman, an English-literature and biology major from Virginia, who had been to graduate school in animal science: a modern cowboy.
“Some herd with four-wheelers these days,” Jay told me as the awards—saddles and spittoons—were being presented. “But without the horse there is no cowboy, and the mounted cowboy is still irreplaceable. He isn’t going to vanish any time soon. A lot of this country we run is so rough.
“Generalizations don’t work any more with cowboys than with anyone else,” he continued. “Some are drifters. It’s very valuable to have someone who sticks because he cares for the ranch as if he owned it. Sometimes there are repeated generations, like Monte Hollar; his dad was on the ranch. But I don’t think you’d get much out of him. You’d have to draw out every word.” The women in the stands were chicly dressed in designer jeans and jewelry, and the men all had Stetsons and boots. Jay introduced me to Ninia Bivins, whose son he was partner with on one ranch he was working. Ninia’s grandmother acquired—in partnership with “Colonel” Charles Goodnight, who invented the chuck wagon and pioneered the Goodnight trail to Denver—almost a million acres of ranchland, including Palo Duro Canyon.
Sunday morning Jay and I drove out to his ranch in a Silverado. We stopped at Taco Bell to pick up some sixteen-ounce “thirstbusters” of Diet Coke. There were a lot of false storefronts in downtown Amarillo. This was a drive-up society; food, fuel, cash, booze, a last look at a departed loved one could all be done from your car—but the town also had American classics like the Double Dip Drive-in, Doug’s Bar-B-Que, and Feferman’s Army-Navy Store.
“My grandfather put together eighty thousand acres in New Mexico,” Jay told me, “and he was just a cowhand. But he lost most of his money in the Depression, so I understand land lust and loss, the sense of stability that land gives you, even though the ownership that any of us have is limited. A lot of ranches out here have been overgrazed. If you own, you’re less likely to overgraze. To me there’s no greater high than turning a place around, buying land—getting the asset—and making it work and improving it, feeling connected to a working landscape.
“The land in the West has always represented opportunity,” Jay went on. “It’s been a safety valve for people. I sometimes wonder whether Kennedy started the space program just to compete with the Russians or whether he also did it to extend the frontier, all the land in the West having been spoken for. Americans aren’t used to restricted opportunity. It doesn’t sit well.”
Jay told me about the modern scientific approach to raising cattle: “What you’re doing is converting cellulose to protein, and the more you move cattle, the less weight they gain. It takes a while for cattle on the range to sort out their social order and to get comfortable at a water hole. We graze them on grama and buffalo grass for eight or nine months. To bring one seed cow with her calf to weaning, it takes eight months and fifteen to thirty acres of pasture. Then we take them to the feedlot, where they eat corn and milo [sorghum]. Twenty-five percent of all the nation’s cattle are fed within a hundred miles of Amarillo.”
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.”
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.
“COWBOYS ARE NOT OWNERS, 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.”
“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.
A red-tailed hawk swooped down into a stand of prickly pears in a “wasty” moonscape. “He’s got something,” Alan said. Two hundred paces away a pronghorn antelope was staring at us intently with bulging eyes that could pick up movement four miles away. It was a doe (lacking the buck’s black facial markings)—a heifer, as Alan called her. “She should have already dropped her kid by now. If you see a heifer alone, you know something’s wrong.” We stood watching this magnificent creature, perhaps the largest wild animal left in the Southwest and the fastest in the New World (and one of the fastest on the planet), capable of twenty-foot leaps and bursts of speed of up to forty miles an hour. Pronghorn antelope needed such speed to outrun the gray wolves that preyed on them, but they were killed off, like the buffalo and the grizzly bear, by trigger-happy Americanos. Coronado and his men, as they were led across the oceanic Llano Estacado by El Turco, their curved casqued helmets glinting in the sun, saw uncountable numbers of them.
The pronghorn is not a true antelope, like the gazelle, but is the last representative of its unique family, the antilocaprids. Until the Pleistocene extinctions ten thousand years ago, there were thirteen genera of antilocaprids. Pronghorns once ranged from southern Canada to the plateaus of Mexico and from the Mississippi to the Gulf Coast, performing epic migrations across the entire West. They were prime wild game, the prize trophy for “dudes” (as the cowboys called Eastern or European city boys) like Teddy Roosevelt and Lord Dunraven, and by the turn of the century their numbers had shrunk in fifty years from an estimated thirty or forty million to twenty thousand. (For a Hollywood treatment of the titled European big-game hunters, see the 1968 movie Shalako , starring Scan Connery and Brigitte Bardot, a period piece in its own right.)
THE AMERICAN COWBOY WHO IS SUCH A SYMBOL OF OUR CULTURE IS BASICALLY A REVAMPED VAQUERO. THE BRANDING OF LIVESTOCK CAME FROM SPAIN.
I asked Alan if he had ever worked with any New Mexican vaqueros. He said he had, and they had the same outlook as, and were often even more skilled than, Anglos. The American cowboy who rapidly became such a symbol of our culture is basically a revamped vaquero. The longhorn steer, the sheep, and the mustangs that roam the Southwest’s grasslands and sagebrush steppe are of Spanish provenance, as are the wheat, barley, alfalfa, and other grains that they feed on, which were introduced by the Jesuit Father Kino and his associates.
“In perfecting the methods of ranching in the Interior Provinces [as the northern borderlands of New Spain were known after 1776], Spanish and Indian vaqueros drew heavily on Spanish techniques brought to Mexico and adapted them as they made their way northward,” Odie B. Faulk writes in his history of the Southwest, Land of Many Frontiers . “The process evolved almost all of the techniques and paraphernalia associated with the cowboy complex of the American post-Civil War period: a broad-brimmed sombrero to shade the eyes from the blazing sun, a bandana to protect the nose and mouth from dust, chaparajos (chaps) to ward off thorns, pointed boots suited to the stirrup, and spurs with big two-inch rowels; a lariat ( la riata ) for roping, a saddle with a horn for dallying a rope (very different from the type used by Englishmen); a hackamore ( jáquima ), or rope without a metal bit. The branding of livestock dated from the Roman era and had come to the New World by way of Spain; it was not in common use in England or in English colonies. The rounding up of livestock from an unfenced range became a standard procedure in the Southwest, quite distinct from the fence-pastured methods employed on the East Coast by English colonists.” A lot of Mexicanisms became the stock lingo in the Hollywood Western: vamoose (from ¡vamos! ); adios , amigos ; pronto ; desperado (a simplification of desesperado that was easier for the American tongue); hombre , not to mention ranch , rodeo , and corral and topographic terms like arroyo , mesa , and rinćon .
According to this school of thought, the American cowboy is a re-invention, a borrow. Another school emphasizes his Southern roots. The white and black cowboys who came to Texas in fact brought with them a long heritage of open-range cattle herding, reaching back to colonial South Carolina. Branding styles, the use of cow dogs, and range burning all trace to the Carolina seaboard. Buckaroo may not derive from vaqueiro but from the Gullah word buckra . Texas was a melting pot. The cowboy yodel came from Switzerland. The sub-Saharan country of Gambia, which provided many of American’s slaves, had yodeling traditions and nomadic cattlekeepers of its own, and some Gambians may have acquired riding skills from Arabs.
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.
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.”
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.”