Sagebrush Saga, Part II
Big-outfit buckarooing in Northern Nevada. Originally published in the December 1980 issue of Western Horseman.
By Kurt Markus
THE 1980 MODEL BUCKAROO is difficult to hire and hold. The good ones—and a few cranky veterans will add, “There ain’t enough genuine cowboys to fill a Bull Durham sack”—can roam just about anywhere in the buckaroo zone and jump on a payroll. Single men, and married men, too, flow in and out of ranches like ocean tides. “If a man stays on one place for more than a year,” says Fred Vignola, a former IL ranch manager, “he’s the resident old-timer. I don’t know why it is, but these young buckaroos won’t set down. And a hand has to put in a couple months on an outfit before he starts to make the company some money. All this aimless moving around is hurting the big ranches.”
The effects of the short-term employment sift to many aspects of ranch life. Because of the high turnover rate, buckaroos inherit a string of horses that have been subjected to a host of different reins; some of these horses have never been offered patience or known a familiar touch. Contrary to the opinion that the best way for a green cowboy to learn the craft is to hire onto a big outfit, an inexperienced youngster today can find himself in quick trouble when he’s pitched into a short crew and cut out a string with no more handle than he’s got. The present economy is rough on ranching, some of the big spreads poor-boy the operation to get by, and not many outfits can afford the luxuries of filling cavvies with broke horses or hanging on to a man who can’t share the load.
“In the years just before World War One,” Ken Scott writes in his 1965 account of cattle and sheep baron Bill Moffat’s activities in Nevada, He Fenced ‘Em In, “a great many of the vaqueros stayed in one place and worked for the same outfit for years at a time. These men took great pride in training their saddle horses, and each would try to make a better ‘separating’ [cutting] horse than the other. They stayed on the same ranch and rode a young horse from the time he was first started by some bronc rider until he was finished, or ‘put in the bridle,’ as a well-reined horse was called. They had a much better chance of making a good horse than the boys of today, who don’t have the work it takes to make a good horse, nor do they stay on one job long enough finish training it.
“Several of the old men who were on the Spanish Ranch at the time Humphrey and Moffat bought it were descendants of the old California Spaniards. Some called them Spanish and some called them Mexicans. But whatever they were, they were surely fine reinsmen with young saddle horses. Almost any one of them was capable of making a well reined horse out of a nice colt, if he were given the time.”
Not everyone shares the belief that cowboying has been on the decline since the Civil War. IL Manager Bill Maupin says he’s actually seen improvement in the quality of cowboys since the 1940s. “A lot of the men were punching cows in those days because they didn’t have many choices. Maybe they were raised on a ranch and hadn’t had much schooling. Most of the buckaroos I see today are cowboying because they want to, and you can see the pride they have just looking over their gear. You won’t see any of these men put aluminum in a horse’s mouth or tie his head down. And some of the young buckaroos are no less handy with a rope than the top hands of 30 years ago.”
Witness Mike Thomas, a Paiute from the Owyhee Indian Reservation. In his war bag are an assortment of long nylon ropes and a rawhide reata; Mike occasionally uses the reata for ranch work, mostly for catching calves and dragging them to the fire. He could get the job done with the nylon, but he likes the feel of the rawhide and the challenge of taking his dallies and playing the reata out to dampen the jerk, preventing unnecessary injury to the calves. The added benefit is that the slipping dallies lessen the yank on the saddle, saving a horse’s back. The rest of Mike’s gear matches his reata in the traditional and functional qualities valued by Spanish and Basque horsemen populating the territory when the West was young.
A SHORT WHILE after Jim Koepke loped off on his wrangle horse to jingle the cavvy, the crew disappeared into tepees and emerged carrying halters. Tom Anderson grabbed his rope and a whip and they all walked to the rope corral.
The Winters has a fenced trap covering a many-acred chunk of the green seeding which had been stripped of sage and planted with a durable range grass; a one-room line shack is set up on blocks in one corner of the trap, and a smaller wire corral is handy for keeping up a horse while the camp is occupied a few weeks in the summer. When the wagon is working the area, the camp man joins the branding crew, and when the wagon moves, he stays to watch the cattle and keep them from drifting back to headquarters.
Jake Dalton, a New Mexico cowboy, would occupy the Winters camp. After a couple weeks alone on the desert, men with previously normal personalities have been known to begin talking to themselves and become otherwise colorful. With no one to prepare meals after a full day in the saddle, some men all but quit eating, refusing to heat even canned goods, and will make a supper out of a #2 half-tin of peaches. Working a camp is not like retreating to a lighthouse or lookout tower for a summer of scholarly reading and writing in a tranquility that busy urban people say they hunger for and believe the cowboy to have.
Koepke followed the fence to the back of the trap, circled behind the horses, and turned them toward camp. With the two bell mares in the lead, the 60 head threw up a small dust cloud visible from camp, the dropping sun silhouetting the horses with backlight as they veered at the trap corner a couple hundred yards from the wagons and tepees. One of the buckaroos held the side of the rope corral open as Koepke maneuvered the cavvy, and they thundered obligingly inside; the rope was pulled tight, the horses scrambling for position.
As Tom approached the corral, the rope was lowered and he stepped over. A few stings on the hocks from the whip encouraged rebel horses to line up with chests against the rope, butts facing to the center of the corral. The waiting buckaroos called out the name of the horse they elected to ride the next day, and Tom cast a houlihan around the animal’s neck and pulled him from the cavvy; a buckaroo advanced with a halter and claimed his horse. The roped horses were turned loose in the small line camp corral where they could be easily caught in the morning. Two horses needed shoeing and they were tied to the bed wagon where there was an anvil, shoes and nails. Vern was busy in the mess tent cooking supper.
“Meat pies have a very interesting history,” Vern said as the men filled their plates with the heavy pastry loaded with beef, and gave the concoction a wary look as they dipped into the other dishes positioned together on the chuck box lid. Yielding polite but impassive attention to Vern’s culinary tale, the buckaroos revisited the meat-pie platter, an act intended to honor Vern as well as fill bellies. A couple of the buckaroos sat under the open tent fly stretched above the chuckwagon tongue, and as they finished their apple pie, the sun disappeared behind their tepees and then dropped below the land. On another ranch at another time, a cowboy not of the IL commented on sunrise and sunset: “If there’s anything romantic about this life, it’s pretty much limited to those hours before work and after.”
JAKE DALTON’S WHITE HORSE doubled-up and hopped fitfully the next morning as the crew swung into saddles and rode off to brand. The sorrel gelding John Adamson was riding had never been roped off of, and when John’s turn came to shake out a loop and snake some calves from the rodear, the horse blew up. John pulled the horse’s head around and managed to get him out of the herd without spilling the cattle everywhere; he spurred the horse to a dead run and left the scene. The ground crew stood silently and watched the two melt into the distance. They wondered silently if John would return after he’d taken the fight out of the gelding or if he’d just keep on riding back to camp, collect his outfit, draw whatever pay due him, and head to Elko for a turn at the women and honkytonks.
In the beginning of his cowboy career, John traveled some, but he usually planted himself with the intention of staying. John was married then. He got divorced a year or so ago, and nobody sees as much as the country as John Adamson these days. “It’s this way,” he said one evening out on the desert, his mouth rolling a dead Winchester cigarette—smoked clear to the filter—from side to side as he talked: “A guy gets a couple of bucks ahead, puts on clean clothes, and heads to town to try something else. He decides to think over his future in an Elko bar, and have a glass of beer at the same time. Friends come by and he has a few more beers. Maybe he spends a day or two at Mona’s, and before he know it, the money’s gone and the only thing he can do is pick up his saddle and go back to work.” John wore the black hat in the Kenny Rogers television special on the American cowboy, winning a sort of leading role with his dry humor and to-the-point cowboy philosophies.
When he was asked what he’d do if he ever quit cowboying, the camera and sound men captured the quote which has hounded John ever since the special was aired a year ago. “I think I’d drive a potato chip truck,” was his reply. Not only was the statement drawn out of context, it misleads, although it is conceivable that John may someday do just that. His words are more a sign of the frustration shared not only by many working cowboys, but by wage earners everywhere who have seen the future and want no part of the mass crowding and faceless, computer-driven, assembly-line production.
If the buckaroo is restless, perhaps it is because he has not yet found what he is looking for: stability and meaning in an upside down world. By comparison, today’s cowboy is probably more removed from mainstream America than his counterpart of 100 years ago was in his time. Almost nothing that is advertised over radio or television is something he’d want. The big outfits of the West have been split as much by inheritance as they have by developers, and the reality is that the land pie can be sliced only so many times before the hired hand has no cowboy crew to join up with.
A young cowboy working on one of the Padlock’s south-end units outside Sheridan, Wyoming, remarked, “If a man makes a wild ride on a rough horse and nobody sees it, what good is it?” Small, family-run ranches are the backbone of the industry, but big outfit cowboy crews provide a key ingredient in establishing a man’s reputation—witnesses.
ABOUT 15 MINUTES after John vanished from the site where the IL crew was branding, he rode back, and as soon as he hobbled the lathered-up gelding, he took his place on the ground and began to flank calves. Although no one said a word, the IL buckaroos were pleased to have him return, and the momentary tension snapped. This was the branding day described at the outset of this account, a day that went on too long. “While civilized man has used his knowledge and talents to reign over the animal kingdom,” writes artist Joe Beeler in Cowboys and Indians, “the cowboy many times finds himself no better off than the horse he is riding or the cattle he is driving.”
The wagon moved back to headquarters the following day. Tom handled the lines on the chuckwagon; Smitty drove the bed wagon team. Because the green lead team—Pinkey and Doc—had nearly caused a runaway when the wagon first pulled out from headquarters for the desert a couple weeks before, Tom didn’t breathe until the chuckwagon was safely through the wire gate at Winters and headed down the road. The rain had set the crew behind schedule, and the plan was to spend the night at the headquarters bunkhouse and leave the next afternoon for a new camp along Deep Creek, about 15 miles out from headquarters. Other chores needed attention while they were at headquarters: a pen of new Beefmaster cattle that the ranch is using to upgrade their herd needed looking over, and four colts had to be gelded. At one time, the IL filled the cavvy with horses bred, born, and broke on the ranch. Most of the mares were sold off years ago, and Bill Maupin is now trying to rebuild the broodmare band; he has 15 mares, plus two studs with Three Bars breeding, as a nucleus. Fifteen to 25 replacement horses are needed each year, and until the IL’s horse operation is back in full swing, the ranch will continue to secure most of the new horses from outside. The last batch of horses Billy purchased held a number of papered horses, most with Thoroughbred breeding, that being the most desired blood for northern Nevada, where horses are asked to cover long distances at a strong trot.
Gelding is still done an old West way, by heading and forefooting the animal in a small corral. The head rope is moved to the hind feet once the horse is thrown, and he’s held stretched out by the two men horseback while the boss cuts. Mike, Harley and Smitty were mounted, John and Jim worked the ground, and Tom wielded a sharp knife. The objective is to do the job cleanly and quickly with as little running of the horses as possible. It’s also a good opportunity for the buckaroos to perfect their horse catches, and in northern Nevada and eastern Oregon, horse ropings are big attractions and one of the few events not dominated by rodeo professionals.
THE WAGONS AND CAVVY left headquarters after the noon meal, prepared by Smitty’s wife Nida, and served from the buckaroo cook house, which doubled as Smitty and Nida’s quarters when the crew was at the main ranch. The scenery changed sharply as the caravan climbed out of the meadows flanking the South Fork of the Owyhee. The abundant rain had turned the higher country green, and some of the drainage areas were so thick with deep grass that they shone like emeralds. In the distance, the Independence Mountains rose, their tips yet snowy, a reminder that winters can be as cold as the summers hot. Smitty was leading in the chuckwagon, Jim was behind in the bed wagon, and John rode point on the cavvy while Mike and Harley kept stragglers moving. Two years ago, the IL wagon moved 80 miles in two days—50 of those miles the first day—but most of the moves are more like the one that happened last May, and in a few hours the wagon was at the Baldwin Place and busy setting camp.
The rope corral is carried on two stout prongs attached to the back of the bed wagon, and as soon as the wagons reached camp, the corral was off-loaded in the trap adjacent to the camp where the cavvy was turned loose to graze. The mess tent and fly were set up first, and then the buckaroos pitched individual tepees in whatever flat, open area they could locate in the bushy lowland alongside Deep Creek. The fine weather that accompanied the wagons to the Baldwin Place was replaced by a menacing sky of dark clouds threatening rain or worse.
By next afternoon, it was worse. It snowed.
Such are the fortunes of ranching, northern Nevada and the IL proving no exception. Yet the life survives, and work gets done. And men keep on cowboying, despite knowing that the best they can do is die without debt.