The Last Roundup
Out in West Texas two ranches are fighting a new kind of range war that pits the helicopter against the horse, the fence against the open range, the working cowboy against the modern businessman.
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Everyone had prayed for rain, but this was ridiculous. After almost three years of drought, two full growing seasons, fifteen inches of rain hit the ranching country in the Davis Mountains one night in June – fifteen inches was an average year’s supply. The rain hit with the force of a runaway train, washing out nearly every bridge across Limpia Creek and stranding families in the high country around Alpine and Fort Davis. The normally placid little creek raged like a river at flood tide, a hundred yards wide and sixteen feet deep in places, gobbling huge chunks of its bank, uprooting ancient cottonwood trees and utility poles and sections of Texas Highway 17.
Chris Lacy, the boss of the Kokernot 06, was awakened about three in the morning by thunder and rumbling so terrible that he thought it was a tornado. From the front porch of his ranch house he could see a tree as large as a bull elephant being dragged under and thrashed about like a toothpick. A lesser rain several days earlier had washed out the bridge leading from the 06 to the highway into Fort Davis, but that was nothing compared with what was happening now. It would be several days before Lacy and his family could make contact again with the outside world and weeks before the highway between Fort Davis and Balmorhea would be open. The worst storm in almost fifty years caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage – and still no one was ready to say the drought had ended.
Droughts did freaky things to ranchers. The emotional effects were sometimes deeper than the ecological effects on the land itself. Droughts drained the human spirit and opened it to the ravages of pessimism. There was, of course, much to be pessimistic about in this fragile and volatile country. Life here was a cycle of natural disasters, predator attacks, failing markets. The whole history of ranching out here was documented by tears and heartaches; droughts and flash floods were landmark events, the same as marriage and childbirth and death. Old-timers remembered the drought of the thirties, when cattle starved or died of thirst or disease in such numbers that finally, in desperation, government agents drove the survivors into a canyon and shot them. “It was a mercy killing,” recalled Hallie Stillwell, the 87-year-old matriarch of the Stillwell Ranch, south of Marathon. “Still, it was sad.” Natural disasters were part of this country’s fatal charm – part of a compromise and contract made more than a hundred years ago when men like Herbert Kokernot, Sr., began amassing the land to create their great West Texas ranches.
Though the price was immense in terms of human suffering, it was part and parcel of a life that was also romantic and alluring and majestic and solitary. That explained why most ranchers clung so tenaciously to their old and honored traditions – to their way of life. They regarded change as a betrayal, but whether they knew it or not, change was inevitable. In other areas of Texas many of the largest ranches had survived because of oil; the discovery of petroleum reserves on those ranches had, in effect, subsidized the cowboy traditions. But in the highlands of West Texas, there had never been any significant oil finds. High-country land wasn’t good for anything except ranching; the value of the land was still in what it could produce for the dinner table – beef. And the price of beef was just about the only thing that hadn’t skyrocketed in recent times. This year beef on the hoof would sell for about 65 cents a pound, the same as last year and the year before. Cowboys’ wages had tripled in the last decade, as had almost everything else the rancher needed to survive. At the same time, thanks to an influx of new, rich, mostly urban buyers, land values had gone out of sight, from $20 an acre as recently as the sixties to $80 an acre in the seventies to $200 an acre and more today. Traditional wisdom in the highlands had it that each cow required forty acres of range – each 640-acre section (ranchers out here always talked in terms of sections, not acres) would support no more than twenty head. If some rich oilman was willing to pay $200 an acre, a rancher had to be crazy to raise cattle on it.
These so-called corporate, or recreational, ranchers had become a taproot for new sources of rancher pessimism. It was a bitter irony: the high country still hadn’t discovered oil, but it had discovered oilmen. Oilmen – and bankers and lawyers and other urban creatures – bought land the way they bought objects of art. Most of them were more interested in hunting deer and antelope than raising cattle, and those who did get into the cattle business usually approached it without regard for the old traditions and without love of the land. They “modernized.” They “experimented.” They wanted to make money. Indeed, to them money was the whole point of the enterprise. Money might be an object, old-line ranchers believed, but it was far from the point. The point of ranching was ranching.
Chris Lacy, though only 36, was an old-style ranch boss who ran an old-style ranch – the 06 was one of the oldest brands in Texas. Lacy ran his operation well. The 06 made a healthy profit during good years and was stable enough to survive bad years. When Lacy and his cowboys talked about the loss of traditions and values and a way of life (and they talked about it constantly), they weren’t just talking in general terms. They saw an example of it next door. Their neighbor on the next ranch over was one of the newcomers. He was an Aggie and an oilman and a banker, a multimillionaire from Midland who represented in clear and stark terms all the things the old-liners had come to hate – the modernizations and experimentations and heightened concerns for the bottom line.
The neighbor’s name was Clayton Williams, and not only did he disdain the cumulative wisdom of ranching tradition but he was wildly successful while doing so.
After nearly a week of isolation, Chris Lacy and his family took an alternate route over the mountains and into Fort Davis. Thunderheads were building off to the west. The following morning, Lacy met Joel Nelson, one of his top cowboys, at Sutler’s Boarding House restaurant, where Nelson was drinking coffee and talking to a young bronc rider named Shot Branham. A student at Sul Ross, Branham was looking for part-time work breaking colts. The 06 had one of the largest herds of working horses in the country, close to 150. Because the terrain was so rugged, the cowboys did most of their work on horseback. “Frankly,” Lacy said, “we prefer it that way.”
Chris Lacy was the fourth generation of his family to manage the 06 brand. The brand was registered in Calhoun County about 1837 and had been in the Kokernot family since 1872. Chris had managed the ranch since 1971, when his grandfather Herbert Kokernot, Jr., stepped aside. Though the original 06 had been divided after the death of its founder, Herbert Kokernot, Sr., in 1949, it remained one of the most notable and massive spreads in Texas. Many of the great ranches had been broken up and distributed among offspring for tax purposes and because subsequent generations failed to see the romance of the cattle business. Before Herbert Senior’s death, the 06 sprawled over 450 sections – 288,000 acres of the best grazing land in the state. The 200 sections of high country west of the rim, which was still called the 06, went to Herbert Junior, and the 250 sections of less desirable low-country range, now called the Leoncita, went to one of Herbert Senior’s two daughters (the other daughter inherited enough money to buy her own ranch near San Antonio). Herbert Junior and his wife, Golda, continued to live at Casa del Monte, the original house at ranch headquarters, and the old man still set overall policy, but Chris made the day-to-day decisions and worked side by side with the cowboys.
The 06 was an awesome, spectacular spread. Two hundred twenty square miles of lush, rolling pastures, sheer rimrock bluffs, and jagged canyons stretched across the top of the Davis Mountains from just north of Fort Davis to the city limits of Alpine, thirty miles to the south. The native brush and grasses were as pristine now as they were in 1535 when Cabeza de Vaca camped here. Other than Chris and Joel, the 06 regularly employed only two or three full-time cowboys, but cowboys all over the country knew the ranch as one of the last holdouts for cowboy traditions. Modern electric pumps and elaborate systems of water pipes were largely disdained in favor of windmills and old-style concrete stock tanks. There was a minimum of cross-fencing (that is, fencing within the boundaries of the ranch); a cowboy could ride from dawn to dusk without encountering a fence. The 06 was one of the few ranches that still used a chuck wagon for spring branding and fall roundup, though in a rare concession to the twentieth century the wagon was now pulled by a pickup instead of a mule team. Calves were still roped and dragged to fire for branding. Cowboys from as far away as Montana and Idaho kept in touch with the 06 and were hired on when extra hands were needed for branding or roundup. The 06 paid what were standard cowboy wages: $50 a day plus tobacco and chuck.
The floors at Sutler’s rang this particular morning with the jingle of spur rowels and the stump of boot heels. It was too wet to work, but even during the drought there wasn’t a lot to do this time of year except get ready for roundup in October. Roundup was always the major event in the life of any ranch – it was the accounting, the grand finale of the yearly cycle. Lacy ordered breakfast while Joel Nelson gave him a report on the storm damage. Most of the water gaps would need replacing, but overall the rains had been a great asset. The drought wasn’t necessarily broken, Joel was quick to point out, but it was cracked for at least eight or nine months. “We’re in good shape for winter,” he said. “We got another year’s leeway.”
There was something else that Joel wanted to talk about. It sounded petty, and it probably was, but Clayton Williams had padlocked his gates again, forcing the 06 cowboys to go miles out of the way to reach their pastures in the top country. It was a perfect example of what was happening to one of the old traditions – neighboring. Ranchers had survived the hardships because they shared them with the past and with each other, and the sharing had been institutionalized into a system called neighboring. It worked for one because it worked for all. But the communal trust had been violated, or at least abridged, and that showed up in things like padlocked gates. In the old days nobody locked gates. It didn’t make sense to. Property lines were irregular and interlocked like clasped fingers; at the borders of a ranch you could never be certain, really, of whose ranch you were on. William’s Brangus ranch was horseshoe-shaped, surrounded on three sides by the 06; it was necessary to cross William’s ranch to get to the 06’s Willow Springs camp or to gain easy access to the top country, just as it was necessary to cross a part of the 06 to reach Williams’ ranch house. Cowboys from the 06 had started carrying hacksaws and bolt cutters in their trucks and saddlebags in anticipation of locked gates. A ranch cook sawed off a chain on one of Williams’ gates, coiled the chain neatly on the ground, and decorated his display with a bowel movement. “Clayton probably didn’t even know it was padlocked,” Joel said. “Of course, that’s his trouble.”
Williams had bought the old Henderson Flat Ranch, adjacent to the 06, eleven years ago, and there had been a running battle of philosophies ever since. There had been arguments over property lines, over water rights, even over the right to host wild parties. Some of the complaints were ludicrous, as when one Fort Davis merchant charged that the oilman raised black cows rather than the red Herefords that were traditional to the area. Williams had been blamed, too, for introducing helicopters to the serene highlands, but in fact the first helicopter in those parts was owned by a rancher named John Rice.
More serious was the quarrel over water. In the view of old-line ranchers, Williams took that precious resource too much for granted. Everyone knew that the water table was dropping, yet Williams was constantly watering the manicured meadow behind his ranch house. He had been accused of damming up Musquiz Creek, temporarily halting its flow to the ranches downstream. (Williams said the dam was there when he bought the ranch.) When Clayton and his wife, Modesta – Claytie and Desta to their friends – invited large numbers of guests to their ranch, as they did at least once a year for their annual party and cattle auction, tank trucks were sent out to water down the twelve miles of road between their house and the front gate.
Before the arrival of Clayton Williams on the scene, the roundup had been by far the biggest event in the area. Now there were two such events; Williams’ big bash, held every August, had become the second. It was the subject of much gossip and speculation and anticipation, but it was also the focus of much resentment. There was a sense among the old-style ranchers that Williams was using his party to rub their noses in his success. The party had become a kind of antisymbol to them, a crystallization of everything that was wrong with the newcomers’ approach to ranching. The idea of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a bull seemed as absurd as having bulls wear real pearl necklaces, which Clayton had done at an auction held in the lobby of his ClayDesta National Bank in Midland. The battle of lifestyles reached its peak when a group of ranchers and local politicians complained to the Texas Liquor Control Board about the all-night drinking, singing, and carrying-on at Williams’ party. There apparently was a technical violation: though Williams’ front gate was in wet Brewster County, the ranch house, where the party took place, was in dry Jeff Davis County. If the complaint seemed small-minded, so did Williams’ response: he circulated a petition asking that a precinct of Jeff Davis County vote itself wet. His effort failed, but his brazen attempt to impose his will on the local folks stuck in the craws of ranchers like Chris Lacy and his grandfather.
Most of the old-timers thought that Williams’ disregard for tradition would eventually settle the score in their favor; he would run out of grass or out of water or out of luck. Tradition had served the 06 well. In Lacy’s thirteen years as boss, his ranch had not failed to show a yearly profit. There had been lean times, of course, especially since the onset of the drought. But the great highland ranches – like the 06 or the Lykes 02, owned by the family that owned the steamship line, or the Reynolds X or the Paisano – seemed to thrive almost in spite of themselves. The land had been in the families for years, long ago bought and paid for, and so had the breed stock. Most ranches ran basic cow-calf operations. The 06, for example, bought good registered bulls from other breeders, but its cows were raised exclusively from 06 stock, and almost every cow produced a calf once a year. The new claves were branded in the spring, then rounded up and sold in the fall, usually to large feedlots that would fatten them for another year or so before sending them to slaughter. Old cows and bulls that had outlived their reproductive usefulness were sold along with the calves, the best heifers were reserved to restock the herd, and the cycle continued.
Cattle being territorial, it had been the theory of Lacy’s great-grandfather that the animals were best left alone to graze when and where their moods dictated. Despite the absence of cross-fencing, the same 06 cows were found, year after year, in the same 06 pastures. The first and last rule was, and still is, Let nature have her way. There was a reason it rained only fifteen inches a year. Native shrubs and grasses grew here for a reason. Nature understood conservation far better than man did, and it was the wise rancher who understood nature and bent to her will. Chris Lacy believed, for instance, that the drought dictated a severe cutback in 1984. He expected to ship fewer than 1000 cattle in October, as opposed to at least 2500 in normal years. But the cutback seemed vital; it would allow the range to recover.
“Basic cow-calf operations like ours take what they can get,” he said. “Thirty cents, sixty cents, seventy cents – whatever they’re bringing. Good years, we can make improvements. We’re not extravagant. Bad years, we have to cut back. My grandfather is very conservative. He owns the land and he owns the cattle. Otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to stay in business. This is a simple operation, a good operation, a safe operation.”
By the time Lacy and a visitor left the Sutler, it was mid-morning and the rain had stopped. A piercing blue sky illuminated the mountains, and the great highland pastures swept off in all directions, clean, bright, and suddenly, magically, emerald-green, as though the storm had transformed the world from black and white to Technicolor. Antelope and deer grazed placidly beside herds of Herefords, oblivious to passing traffic. “You’re seeing this country in its Sunday best,” Lacy said.
There was some irony in the 06’s resistance to change, because the Kokernot family had built its fortune during some of the most dramatic and violent changes in modern history. Originally from France, the Kokernots fled to Amsterdam at the time of the French Revolution. Herbert Senior’s grandfather David Kokernot migrated to New Orleans in 1817 and later served as a scout for Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto. David’s son Lee served with Terry’s Texas Rangers during the Civil War, and later Lee Kokernot and his brother John bought the 06 brand and started a cattle business in Gonzales. When the newly built Southern Pacific Railroad was extended to the high country in the 1880’s, Lee sent his son, Herbert Senior, to Alpine to buy, sell, and trade land. Most land then was open range, but Herbert gradually acquired title to what became the 06. Many of his holdings came from repossessions – he would rather have had the money, but the economics of the times got him into the cattle business. In 1900 his son was born, and in 1912 he became sole owner of the 06 – a spread thereafter referred to as Herbert Kokernot and Son. Another landmark event occurred about that time. Kokernot brought the English-bred Hereford to the ranch and helped pioneer its development in the region. The whiteface, now referred to locally as the highland Hereford was said to be ideally suited to the cool, rugged mountain climate. Newcomers to the highlands who have introduced Brangus and other breeds are looked on as fools, though the truth is that the case for the Hereford as opposed to any other breed is rooted as much in tradition as in cold, objective fact.
“A little Brahman would probably do good out here,” Chris Lacy admitted, turning his four-wheel-drive pickup off the highway. “But my grandfather says keep it one hundred per cent the same breed – and you know what breed he means.” Chris found a shallow place to cross Limpia Creek, hubcap-deep now and as clear and clean as its name suggested. The house where Chris and Diane Lacy and their two children lived was on high ground not far from the creek bank, flanked by barns, sheds, a trailer, and a corral. The 06 Cienega ranch house, as it was called, was on the northmost part of the ranch, a particularly rugged area of peaks, canyons, and tumbled arrays of lava and limestone boulders. Chris stopped at the house to pick up Diane and their nine-year-old son, Lance. Their eleven-year-old daughter, Kristin, was away at a girls’ camp.
Chris and Diane seemed an odd pair to be running one of the oldest and largest cattle operations in Texas. He had grown up in Waco, the son of a banker. But first and foremost he was the grandson of a Kokernot. He had spent every summer and most vacations at the 06 – he and his third cousin, Tom Beard, who now ran the Leoncita, learned to be real cowboys when other boys their age were still playing with stick horses. Chris played football and studied ranch management at Texas Christian University. There he met Diane, who had grown up in San Antonio. They married in 1971; she was a 21-year-old bride when they moved to Alpine and took charge of the 06. “I barely knew how to ride,” she recalled.
Chris wanted to check on some colts, so we drove toward Grapevine Canyon, along a rutty, muddy trail climbing above the floor of a vast valley of yellow, blue, and orange wildflowers. Diane pointed to a dull, dusty-green flower and identified it as locoweed. “It can poison and even kill cattle,” she said. “Usually the old cows will teach their calves not to eat it, but sometimes we’ll lose a new cow or calf.” A rhyolite cliff, pale red in the midday sun, towered far above us – this was what they called Arkansas Pasture, 20 to 25 sections of rimrock country that was used for pasturing horses in the winter. Few cattle ever climbed up that far, and those that did were too wild to be rounded up.
Near a windmill called Taylor Mill, and not far from the ruins of an old kiln where soldiers had fired the original bricks used at Fort Davis, we spotted four of the meandering colts. They looked up from their grazing as Chris stopped the truck and walked toward them. When they finally started to move, it was in our direction. Diane touched each one and called it by name.
In her thirteen years at the 06, Diane had learned not only to ride but also to cut calves from a herd, handle a branding iron, and do almost anything else a working cowboy did. “Out here your values change,” she said. “You come in contact with the real basics – the weather, the animals, yourself. You learn patience. You learn to think like an animal.” Diane had also, in that time, developed a few strong opinions about her neighbor Clayton Williams. “We’ve done a lot of things for him,” she said. “He had no antelope, so we helped him round up some of ours and put them in one of his pastures. He overgrazes, and he root-plows the native grasses and replants with hybrids from Texas A&M. His trouble is he has no feel for the land. Feel is everything. We don’t grow cattle – we grow grass. We don’t feel we own this land – we’re just leasing it during our lifetime. The land is fragile. It doesn’t take that long to use it up.”
Diane noticed that one of the colts had a nasty cut on his foreleg. She examined it tentatively. “Do you think it was a lion?” she asked.
Chris said he didn’t think so. “Likely got it scuffling with the other colts,” he said. “I’ll come back later and put something on it.”
The following morning, a Saturday, Mr. Kokernot, as Herbert Junior was always called, made one of his infrequent appearances. Though he had been a Jeff Davis County commissioner for 62 years – said to be the longest continuous tenure of any officeholder in Texas – he was otherwise rarely seen in public. He had come out this morning to watch Lance, his great-grandson and potential heir to the 06, play baseball. Diane and Chris, who coached the team, were extremely attentive to the old man’s needs and went out of their way to make him comfortable, but you could tell he would rather have been somewhere else. He was 84, bent and slender as a twig; he looked as though he might blow away with the next gust of wind. Hardly anyone recognized him in the crushed cowboy hat, necktie, brown slacks, and scuffed street shoes or realized that he was the virtual patrón of Alpine. Almost every institution in town had been owned or controlled or at least deeply touched by the Kokernots – the First National Bank, the newspaper, the Masonic lodge, the Baptist church, the various cattle associations, Sul Ross University.
The baseball field where the children were playing was once a part of the 06, as was Kokernot Field, which was adjacent to it and which had been the home field for the Alpine semipro team in the forties and fifties. For the last sixty years baseball and church had been the extent of Herbert Junior’s social life, and after he disbanded the team in the late fifties, baseball no longer interested him. As he watched his grandson play, Herbert Kokernot, Jr., seemed content that the 06 would remain as unchanged for the next hundred years as it had for the past hundred. “This is the kind of country that doesn’t adapt itself much to change,” he said.
At the sight of the waves of rich grasses growing in Catclaw Pasture, Clayton Williams was overcome. The opening bars of the Aggie War Hymn rattling from his lips, he slammed on the brakes and flew out of his Bronco, waving his arms and shouting, ‘Oh, man! I just gotta walk through this.”
So this was the enemy. He didn’t act like the character I had heard described, a man with wanton disregard for the land. He seemed to care. He seemed to care passionately. The pasture bristled with black, blue, and hairy grama grasses and tender young tumbleweed sprouts, all of which thrive naturally in the high country, and with Johnson and Klein grasses that Williams had introduced after root-plowing the pasture and replanting it to suit his purposes. The most amazing thing about Catclaw Pasture was that there wasn’t a catclaw in sight.
Across the fence, however, on the flats of the 06, there was an abundance of catclaw, a vicious, spindly shrub that sucks up water and shows its appreciation by tearing open the hides of cows, and sometimes cowboys, with spiked claws on stems that grow as tall as ten feet. There was mesquite too, and black brush and some scattered strands of gramas. Cowboys on the 06 shared a sort of masochistic fondness for catclaw and even asserted that some of their fattest cattle came from catclaw country, but Williams hated the shrub with an inordinate, almost demonic intensity. He called it the invader and had spent the better part of nine years eradicating it from this particular pasture. “When I die,” he said, “the catclaw of the world will hold the damnedest celebration you ever saw.”
To put it bluntly, Clayton Williams did not believe in bending to nature. He believed with every bone in his Aggie body that with the proper application of modern ranching techniques, you could make nature do the bending. Almost all the pastures on Clayton Williams’ Brangus ranch had been improved, either by root-plowing the native grasses and replanting with hybrids or, at the very least, by poisoning the catclaw and other brush. Some of the improved pastures were failures, in the sense that they hadn’t paid for themselves, and some had been plowed and replanted more than once. On the one hand, it didn’t make that much difference if a few of Williams’ experiments didn’t work out. He was, after all, a wealthy oilman, and though he didn’t admit it – perhaps not even to himself – that gave him a tremendous advantage over the old-style ranchers. Williams wasn’t dependent on the land for his livelihood the way they were. He could play by his own rules because he could afford to. If things didn’t work out, well, it wasn’t the end of the world. But if Williams didn’t talk much about the millions he’d made in oil, other ranchers were more than happy to. “What it amounts to,” one of them said, “is that he’s subsidizing beef with oil.”
On the other hand, Clayton Williams, unlike many of the other newcomers, was no dilettante. He took ranching seriously. His competitive business instincts pushed him to make his ranch operation profitable – and it was. The annual cattle auction alone brought in several million dollars a year, and while no one knew how much his commercial cattle operation brought, everyone knew it was plenty. According to Williams, his books proved that his modern techniques were making him money. By spending $10 an acre on improvements, he said, he could at least double the number of cattle that grazed there. He pointed to the Hill Pasture, where a fork in the road led to the 06’s Willow Springs camp, and explained, “This is one of the weakest pieces of land on my property, but for three years now I’ve been able to run forty-five cow units per section rather than the fifteen most people think is the limit.”
The grass had an intrinsic value too, beyond its traditional purpose of fattening cattle. Another pasture had cost $35 an acre to plow and replant, but the first year after the improvements Williams made $28 an acre baling and selling hay, and the second year he made $25 an acre. Bailing hay, much less selling it, was as foreign to the 06 operation as selling zebras – something else Clayton Williams had done. Cowboys hated plowed land, as they hated potted plants, artificial insemination, embryo genetics, and anything else not directly rooted in the past. Clayton Williams did not claim to be a cowboy, however, or even a rancher. “I’m a cattle entrepreneur,” he said. “Kokernot is at one extreme of the beef production business, and I’m crowding the other extreme.” Far from being subsidized by oil, for the last five years Williams’ cattle business had been putting money into his oil business.
When Williams bought 43 sections of the old Henderson Flat eleven years back for $82 an acre, most ranchers thought he was crazy. The land was considered poor and overused. Then he bought four more ranches in the Davis Mountains, three near San Antonio, and three in Wyoming – he also owned an old family property, an irrigated farm near Fort Stockton. All in all, his ranch holdings were considerable. He ran a cow-calf operation, though it was only a small part of the business. He bought yearling steers from other ranchers and fattened them either out on one of his ranches or, depending on market conditions and rainfall, in feedlots or on leased land. The most spectacular aspect of his ranching business was his registered Brangus business. “That’s another game,” he said. “It twirls up there by itself.” The jet-set ranchers, who attended his annual party and auction had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a small share of the semen rights to a single bull. Such prices made absolutely no sense to the traditional ranchers, but they made enormous sense to Clayton Williams.
The Henderson Flat, the property next to the 06, was his showpiece. Although it was less than a quarter of the size of the 06, Williams ran two or three times as many head of cattle on it. “I have twelve thousand head on my Alpine operations this year,” he said. “Some years I have only two thousand. Some years I have none. I can move with the market, with the grass.” He went on: “A lot of ranchers like Kokernot are keeping their lights [steers under 350 pounds] to fatten them and wait for the market to jump. But smart guys like me are buying steers right now, today, instead of taking it like it is.”
From Williams’ vantage point, the drought was the best thing that could have happened. Williams was an eternal optimist, to be sure, but this was where his oil fortune came into play: while nature was compelling the less fortunate to sell, it was inspiring him to buy. “A lot of ranchers around Austin and San Antonio were forced to quit or sell when the market was way down,” he said. “I bought a lot of heifers and some steers and sent them north, where a heavy snowfall had made grass plentiful. I bought another fourteen thousand yearlings in South Texas and seven thousand in Mexico. I sent some to the Colorado cornfields and some to the Arizona desert and some more to Wyoming. Cattle cycles are supply and demand, pure and simple, When prices go up again, ranchers will be buying heifers to replenish their stock. I’ll be selling heifers back to some of the same people that sold them to me. I usually make about seven dollars an acre here, triple what most cow-calf operations make. This year I estimate I’ll make twenty dollars an acre. Next year, who knows? I might decide to let the grass grow.”
Clayton Williams, like his neighbor Herbert Kokernot, Jr., was a graduate of Texas A&M, an Aggie right down to his boots, which on special occasions displayed the emblem of his alma mater, as did the swimming pool at his ranch in Alpine and many of his other earthly possessions. Texas A&M was the central fact of his life: he prided himself on being the little Aggie who could. Now in his early fifties, he was as lean and fit as a cheerleader and so ultrahyper that he couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes. His pet word for conditions was “hardscrabble,” taken from the title of John Graves’ book, which he talked about constantly. Graves wrote of a previous generation of God-fearing men from “the days of big grass,” men who used up the land and moved on, “without heed or knowledge of such soil-saving measures as contour plowing, crop rotation, … terracing, stripcropping.” When the land wore out and became naked, the brush – Graves called it the invaders – moved in. In Clayton’s view, that described what had happened to Herbert Kokernot and other ranchers. They had not tried “to mold the land into new forms of usefulness but [had molded] themselves to its shrunken possibilities.” The drought wasn’t the reason they were losing – the drought was their excuse.
It was a hot July day, and Clayton opened a can of beer from the cooler behind the seat and surveyed his ranch. Pride radiated from his face. “I paid eight-two dollars an acre for this,” he said. “The original Kokernot paid five dollars. He got a lot of it by repossessing land. The present Kokernot inherited his. To his credit, he didn’t lose it like a lot of them, but he hasn’t improved it much either. The fact is, it’s not like it was fifty years ago. They’re playing make-believe. Me, I’m very intense in my business. I like to make money.”
Clayton Williams grew up in hardscrabble, catclaw country. His father owned a ranch and an irrigated farm near Fort Stockton. He lost the ranch during the drought of the fifties, but Clayton recovered most of it after making his fortune in oil. “A big part of our ranch was converted to cotton farms,” he recalled. “This had been old, rough, used up ranchland, but because of government subsidies farmers were able to irrigate and grow some cotton. But it was marginal. The only reason there was a market at all was because of government subsidies. Farmers went broke anyway, because it was not economically feasible to farm cotton out there. The government created a false economy. The drought relief just let the farmers go deeper and deeper in debt and ruined the land too. The farmers kept taking government handouts and devoted the best, most productive years of their lives to … what? To chasing a false idol. They should have listened to nature. Nature tells us when it’s time to sell and get off the land.”
It didn’t take a psychiatrist to see that something didn’t square here; any old-time rancher would have been willing to point it out. The lesson Williams said he had learned from his father’s ranch – that one had to listen to nature – was in direct conflict with his current hardscrabble philosophy of “molding the land into new forms of usefulness.” Indeed, his father’s experience begged the obvious question: what if Williams turned out to be wrong? His operation was showing a handsome profit now, but he had been in the ranching business for only a decade, which in ranching terms was not very long at all. What if in the long run his hybrid grasses didn’t thrive? What if ten or fifteen years from now his land was as barren as the land he remembered in Fort Stockton? Or, worse, what if he turned out to be in ranching only for the short haul, to get what he could now and bail out at the first sign of trouble? What if he was the one who was chasing the false idol? In their heart of hearts, all the old-style ranchers believed that that was how things would play out before it was over. What they also knew, though, and what embittered them, was that even if Williams did turn out to be wrong in the end, as they all hoped, he would simply write off the experience and go somewhere else. The land would remain.
Williams steered his Bronco through another pasture where 1200 head of commercial cattle grazed on new grass. Most ranchers would have limited a pasture this size to a few dozen head, but most ranchers didn’t believe, as Williams did, in rotation grazing. “I’ll keep them here for thirty days, then I won’t use this pasture again until it’s been plowed and replanted,” he said. “I’m kind of radical, as are most people who love the land. That’s what ol’ Hardscrabble Graves and I have in common. Cowboys love cattle. They believe that only the tenderest grass is nutritious. But what’s best for cows is not necessarily best for grass in the balance of management. Grass needs time. It grows logarithmically. Leave it alone and in a month there will be ten times as much grass as before.”
Williams drove past some Hispanic workers who were terracing a section of pasture to catch runoff that otherwise would have disappeared into a ravine. Similar “spreaders” were located all over the ranch – the 06 also constructed spreaders, but there were fewer and they were not as well maintained. There were no windmills on Williams’ property. “I trust electricity more than I trust wind,” he said.
It surprised Williams that so few people understood what he saw as the basic economic facts of ranching. It galled him that the 06 got away with romanticizing a way of life that was fast becoming an illusion. Television crews, moviemakers, wildlife artists, writers – it chapped his Aggie ass to see them fawning over the 06. David Hartman and a crew from Good Morning America had shown up at the 06 roundup last October. The year before, it was a British movie outfit filming a piece called My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys. The documentary starred Waylon Jennings, who had just been released from a drug treatment center and could barely stand up, much less ride. “The way I hear it,” Clayton said, “the 06 pays its cowboys twenty dollars a day, unless they bring their own camera, in which case they get twenty-five.” Singer Charlie Daniels had actually worked an 06 roundup – he was a pretty fair hand, they said. Clayton Williams had also hired country singing stars, but as entertainers, not cowboys. Nothing romantic about that. It was just good business.
Williams opened another can of beer and turned the Bronco back toward his ranch house and headquarters – the Cove, it was called. A giant antelope buck (imported apparently from the 06) galloped parallel to the Bronco for a few hundred yards, then shifted gears and raced across our path and out of sight. On the hill above the Cove, just beyond the 06 property line, stood a massive sentinel of rimrock called Polk’s Peak. Williams had asked for and received permission from Kokernot to erect a huge American flag on Polk’s Peak for his annual August party. He described the party as “Woodstock without sex.” His guests were going to pay some fancy prices for cows, and Clayton wanted them to enjoy the experience.
THE WILLOW SPRINGS RANCH house, where Joel Nelson and his wife, Barney, lived, sat on a finger of land along Musquiz Creek, near the center of the 06 and yet isolated by Williams’ ranch from the 06’s Cienega camp far to the north and the 06’s Berrendo Flat camp well to the south. Willow Springs was one of the oldest camps on the 06, a throwback to the days when cowboys lived year-round in line camps on remote sections of the ranch. Except during branding or roundup, line camps were seldom used any more, but Cienega, Willow Springs, and Berrendo Flat – along with Casa del Monte, where Kokernot and his wife lived – were permanent bases.
Joel and Barney Nelson were themselves throwbacks, remnants of a distant past buffeted by the clamor and confusion of modern times. They appeared to be plain and simple people, a cowboy and his wife, but there was a certain grandeur in their style, a formality of manner and attitude nearly forgotten. Joel had a degree in forestry and range management from Stephen F. Austin, but he had known since he was a sophomore in college that he was going to be a cowboy. Barney was a photographer, an author, and a graduate of Sul Ross; she still worked full time in the university’s department of range animal science. The ranch house where they lived was a turn-of-the-century model of Western architecture and culture and an archive of cowboy paraphernalia: antique saddles, branding irons, hackamores, swivel rings, ropes. The house was supplied by the 06, as were utilities, long distance phone service, and all the beef they wanted. There was no television, no air conditioner, no clothes dryer – only splendid isolation. “This is the center of the earth to us,” Barney said. “This is what satisfies us.”
Sitting in their old-fashioned country kitchen one day in late July, eating steak and drinking iced tea out of tin cans, they talked about their life not as a means of accomplishment but as an end in itself, something done well for its own sake. Few people stood comfortably on tradition or felt inured to its timeless process. Few people cared enough about their job to make it their lives. The cowboy was a vanishing breed, but so were the things the cowboy stood for – humility, sensitivity, pride, reverence for what had gone before. Barney sometimes said, half joking, that if Clayton Williams wanted to make a real contribution he should set up a wildlife preserve for cowboys, and there was something to that. Ted Gray, an old cowboy survivor and ranch owner, had said it eloquently in a passage from Barney’s book, The Last Campfire: “If you talk to an old man sometimes, you can learn something it maybe took him forty years to learn. You might learn it in one minute.” That was the kind of sentiment the new breed of ranch owner would not understand, a romantic notion that flew in the face of technology and quantum leaps but that went to the heart of what Joel and Barney believed. Cowboys worked hard because they believed in the redemption of hard work. Barney said, “It’s the only job I know where you can turn a man loose and not see him for days at a time and know that he’s been up every morning before daylight, just waiting to get started again.” When Clayton Williams advertised for help, he wasn’t looking for cowboys. He was looking for pickup drivers, swimming pool maintainers, weed poisoners.
When Joel and Barney were first married, in 1971, Joel was making about $9 a day and he and Barney spent their free time dreaming of owning their own small spread. He was making considerably more than that now, but the dream had mostly vanished because of the influx of newcomers and the corresponding rise in land prices. “It’s not possible anymore,” Barney said. “We couldn’t even make the down payment.”
But the dream had not died completely. Joel had used the Texas Veterans’ Land Program to buy 20 acres near Fort Davis and had leased 640 acres in an adjacent state park, where he ran a herd of about eighteen cows, heifers, and steers. He owned another seven head that ran with the 06 cattle at Willow Springs. Though Joel was loyal to the highland Hereford, he wasn’t dogmatic about it. His cows were Herefords, but they ran with a mixed breed of steers. “Every breed association will tell you their breed is best and give you statistics to prove it,” he said.
I was curious as to how Joel and Barney felt about Clayton Williams’ annual bash. In a few weeks their splendid isolation would be shattered by several thousand jet-set ranchers, traveling past their front gate to pay ridiculous prices for cattle, stuff themselves with barbecue, and spend the night drinking and listening to top-dollar country music. “We usually go,” Barney said. “Clayton’s our neighbor.”
“I read that this year’s guests of honor are General MacArthur’s daughters,” I said. “I wasn’t aware the general had daughters.”
Joel laughed. “General MacArthur’s a bull,” he told me. “His daughters are embryo donor cows. That’s the big thing these days.”
“They get a million dollars and more for some of those bulls,” Barney said.
“There’s no way you can make money on beef cattle paying a million dollars for bulls,” Joel said. “There’s nothing in the world wrong with upgrading cattle, but you can’t put beef on the table running that kind of operation. We pay up to two thousand dollars for a good, practical range bull, but we’re not afraid to kick him out in the pasture and not see him for a couple of months. You can’t do that with a million-dollar bull.”
“That’s what’s hurting the ranch business,” Barney said. “People who don’t have to worry about making ends meet. Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon. Ranching is getting to be a business where people have less faith in experience than in new, untried methods. I guess they get tax write-offs. Clayton plows the ground and raises tumbleweeds. He hires people to run around and … I don’t know what.”
“It gives them a lot to talk about on the golf course and at the country club dance,” Joel said.
“You know what the difference is between a calf from a breed’s top line and a calf bred from average stock?” Barney asked. “About ten pounds.”
It rained again that night. Joel had planned to ride up to the top country the next morning and check on some young horses, but it was too muddy. Instead he decided to hitch a livestock trailer to his pickup and drive to his friend Jack Saunders’ ranch, south of Marfa. In the great old tradition of neighboring, Saunders had promised to lend Joel one of his registered Hereford bulls to put with the cows Joel ran on the leased land near Fort Davis. “Jack is short of grass,” Joel said. “Besides, it’s good advertising. I wouldn’t have seen his stock otherwise. He knows if I’m impressed I’ll encourage Chris to buy some of them.”
The bull that Joel was borrowing was big-boned, with a straight topline, a broad, well-muscled rear end, and huge shoulders – near-perfect conformations. “Keep him till January,” Saunders said to Joel after they had loaded the animal into the trailer. ”I don’t need him right now, and he’ll eat better at your place anyway.”
After Joel had delivered the bull to his pasture on the mountainside above Fort Davis, he drove into town, looking for Chris Lacy’s pickup. He spotted it outside Bob Dillard’s Union Trading Company. Lacy, Dillard, and Cotton Elliott, one of the 06 cowboys, were loitering in the parking lot between the store and the Limpia Hotel, killing time and talking about the rain. “Anytime you see bees close to the hive, it’s gonna rain,” Elliott said. “I drove by a hive that sounded like a machine gun. I think it’ll rain every day in July and August.” Chris didn’t comment on the possibility of more rain, but as he and Elliott were loading a lawn mower into one of the pickups, he shook his head and looked at it. “We haven’t needed this in a few years.”
“You want me to buy a thousand head of light calves while you’re gone on vacation?” Joel asked the boss of the 06.
Chris thought about it a moment. That old pessimism was creeping back into his eyes. “Better wait,” he said. “See if it ever rains again.”
Folks in fort davis didn’t need invitations to remind them that this was the weekend of Claytie and Desta’s big party. It was August 17, and there wasn’t a vacant motel room within miles of the Alpine-Marfa-Fort Davis triangle. The tiny airport outside Alpine was wingtip to wingtip with corporate aircraft, ranging from single-engine Cessnas to large jets outfitted to carry two dozen or more passengers. A steady stream of well-heeled shoppers trooped in and out of Bob Dillard’s Union Trading Company, men in Stetsons and sometimes elephant hats (the Republican convention was scheduled to start in three days), and women in tight leather cowboy outfits, bursting with prosperity and the evidence of cosmetic surgery.
Fort Davis was accustomed to tourists. It was the highest town in Texas and one of the most scenic; geology students, dude ranch fanciers, and explorers of the unbeaten path visited regularly and were always made welcome. There wasn’t much of what you call action in Fort Davis – no movies, no nightclubs, no public bars. People liked it that way. The town’s only doctor had died, and the only drugstore didn’t sell drugs, though it advertised “the best fountain Cokes in Texas.” The Union Trading Company, located in an old stone building that dated back to 1906, was a Fort Davis landmark and a sort of hangout for locals, who sometimes gathered there after business hours to drink beer and gossip. All the gossip this Friday concerned Clayton Williams.
“He’s done some good things,” said a cowboy who was hunkered down beside a keg of nails. “He got that operation for Ramon.” That was true, admitted Bob Dillard, who ran newspapers in Alpine and Marfa as well as running the Union Trading company. Williams had helped pay for an operation to repair the damaged knees of Roman Hartnett, an old cowboy who ran the chuck wagon for the 06 and cooked for various other ranchers, including Williams. He had also donated $100 to the sonic boom fund, a campaign to pressure the Air Force to abandon its practice of holding dogfight maneuvers over the Davis Mountains. “Some of the others gave a thousand,” Dillard pointed out.
The Williams Brangus Production Sale, as the auction was called on the engraved invitation, didn’t start until 1 p.m. that Saturday, but by midmorning the twelve miles of dirt road running from the highway to ranch headquarters were clogged with buses, campers, and other vehicles. A tank truck sprinkled precious water to hold down the dust. Every mile or so there was an oasis – elaborately constructed Hollywood facades with cute names like Margaritaville, Fort ClayDesta, and Claytie’s Chicken Ranch – where neatly groomed young people in Western costumes dispensed beverages and tough-looking, heavily armed, off-duty lawmen checked credentials. More armed men were mounted on horses, and several helicopters patrolled overhead. Closer to ranch headquarters guests could hear the music of a Dixieland band and smell the smoke from various cook fires.
Clayton’s party had the pizzazz of a county fair. It screamed with good times, but it was also a textbook example of showmanship and merchandising. Three flatbed trucks were loaded with displays of alfalfa hay, Klein grass, pipe and drilling mud, all for sale. Plastic drinking cups advertised Clayton’s gas pipeline company, Clajon. A sign near the circus tent where the auction would take place proclaimed, “We Believe in God, Aggies and Brangus Cattle.” Clayton was every bit as dogmatic and outspoken about the Brangus as Mr. Kokernot was about the Hereford.
Clayton Williams, his maroon pants stuffed in his maroon and white boots, talked with a group of prospective buyers who were inspecting the pens of cattle near the auction tent. Clayton was a little nervous that I was there. I understood. His guests were mostly rich, important people: if the wife of, say, a bank president got smashed and fell in the swimming pool, she would just as soon not read about it. But nothing like that happened. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “If anybody gets drunk and falls in the swimming pool, it’ll probably be me.” Truth was, I’d seen wilder parties in my broom closet.
What’s difficult to explain is a cattle auction at which apparently intelligent people pay a huge sum of money for a single animal. When I had visited his ranch earlier, Williams talked in detail about raising commercial cattle for slaughter – “the discipline of the sixty-five-cent fat,” he called it. This sideshow had nothing to do with that discipline. “This is a separate world,” he told me. “I guess you would say the people here are reaching for the top – it’s like trying to win the Kentucky Derby – and yet there is a tie to the real world.” The cattle to be auctioned here were very special, prizewinning animals that were certain to command top dollar as breeders. It was something like buying the stud rights to Secretariat. Clayton Williams was making the profits today, but on some future day the buyer might look forward to his own profits – so long as there was someone else willing to buy. One old-line rancher called it brother-in-lawing.
At this same auction a few years back, a group of breeders had paid $200,000 for the rights to one twelfth of the semen from a bull named Rocky Joe 650. That fixed the animal’s value at $2.4 million. They didn’t actually buy (or even get possession of) the bull. Williams, who was also part of the group, maintained possession of the bull, as well as an interest in the semen. Once a week a specialist in such matters got to masturbate Rocky Joe 650. The semen was stored in straws, or ampules, that were frozen in liquid nitrogen until it was time to artificially inseminate some cow. Each ejaculation supplied between 60 and 250 ampules of sperm, and thus a bull that under natural conditions might service forty or fifty cows a year had the potential to service thousands.
Artificial insemination was nothing new; it had been practiced for about thirty years. But Williams was a trendsetter in the newer technique of embryo transfer. That was where the so-called supercows, the daughters of General MacArthur and other top-line bulls, came in. If the eggs of a supercow were transplanted into common recipient cows, each supercow was able to produce twenty to forty calves each year. Calves born of common recipient cows had the genes of both the supercow and the top-line bull. Only one bull was available at this auction – his name was Bob of Brinks, and a one-tenth share of his semen rights sold for $300,000, making him even more valuable than Rocky Joe 650. The cows, sold by lots, were themselves the results of embryo transfers. Some were recipients due to calve in a few months (they sold for an average of $39,000), others were pairs of bred cows with heifer calves (they sold for an average of $71,000), and still others were unbred cows (average price $30,000). Most expensive of all were the flushes (eggs) of supercows, whose average price was $137,000.
Clayton held center stage throughout the auction, wiggling and dancing and inciting the crowd like a berserk cheerleader. With the Aggie War Hymn blaring from the speakers, Clayton’s voice occasionally drowned out that of the auctioneer. “Larry, you son of a gun, you stole my heifer! You got performance built in. Look at the stretch and length of that female.” There were a lot of “Gig ‘em Aggies” and jokes about “what good-looking wives Brangus breeders have,” and at one point Clayton even took the microphone and sang a verse of “The Eyes of Texas.” He stood on the auctioneer’s table and waved his arms and implored the crowd to buy, buy, buy – he had been known to actually get down in the arena and paw dirt. When the auction ended, Clayton announced that the sales had totaled $2.73 million, then led the crowd in the singing of “God Bless America.”
As the partygoers began to move out of the tent and up the meadow where the food was being served, roadies for the two star entertainers, Janie Fricke and George Strait, assembled equipment and tested the sound. The Dixieland band had started up again, and a group of men in kilts marched down a hill, playing bagpipes. Claytie led Desta and other members of his family to the stage, said a prayer, did another chorus of “God Bless America,” and announced that there would be fireworks as soon as it was dark, followed by dancing and singing until daybreak, at which time breakfast would be served. From the top of Polk’s Peak Old Glory flapped in the hot August breeze. Then there was a thunderous roar, and a formation of corporate jets zoomed directly overhead and vanished over the tops of the mountains.
Thunderheads had been building up all afternoon, and the squall hit camp just after supper. At first it was light rain, then the rain came harder, then the wind hit full force, driving the rain in parallel sheets, then it started hailing. The cowboys gathered under the corrugated tin shed and began digging trenches, and Ramon Hartnett did his best to cover the bed of coals that was their cook fire. A bolt of lightning narrowly missed the shed. Ty Holland, one of the full-time 06 cowboys, put on a yellow slicker and ran toward the corrals, where a night horse, frightened and near panic, was tied beside a metal fence. Halfway through the month of October it had rained almost every night. It was business as usual at the 06’s annual fall roundup.
When the squall had passed, the cowboys examined the tepees, which were their individual shelters. All the tepees had weathered the storm, but some had leaked, and a few of the cowboys would spend the night in soggy bedrolls. That prospect didn’t seem to bother anyone. The cowboys got back to their twilight routine, cracking bullwhips, practicing roping, pitching horseshoes. When it was too dark to pitch horseshoes, some of them played cards and other gathered by the cook fire, drinking coffee and swapping stories. Obra Denton, who had cowboyed all over the West for the past forty years, remembered spending a winter alone in the high country of northern Arizona. His only shelter had been two pieces of tin and a strip of canvas. “I thought that was about the best life there was,” Obra said.
About half of the fifteen cowboys taking part in the roundup were drifters who followed the flow – Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, wherever there was work branding or gathering. Most of them were younger than Obra, and some had college educations, but they were cut from the same cloth; they were all willing to sacrifice anything for this archaic, ritualistic way of life. Most had been married at some time, but cowboying could take its toll on a marriage. Ron Goddard, a young cowboy from Montana, had been married when he worked at the 06 the past spring. He and his wife and another couple had built a wagon and put together a contract branding outfit, hiring out to dilettante ranchers who were willing to pay someone else to brand, castrate, dehorn, earmark, and vaccinate newborn calves, but now Goddard’s marriage was on the rocks and he had no idea where he would go from here.
Goddard and three others were generally referred to as the Montana cowboys, though only one of them, Bob Blackwell, was from Montana originally. They were as authentic as cowboys got. Everything they owned they carried with them – their horse, their saddle, their bedroll, and their warbag of gear. These were men who paid $400 for a pair of knee-length work boots and $40 for a pair of dress boots. These were men who thought heaven was life on horseback but would settle for $700 a month in a line camp forty miles from the nearest town. Some were tall and some were short, but they were uniformly lean, sported facial hair, and wore floppy black hats and vests under their ragged, dusty coats. When you looked at the Montana cowboys, standing together or individually, you thought of a Wanted poster.
This particular camp, called Number Nine, was the cowboys’ favorite. From the flat, grassy crown of Number Nine a cowboy could see for sixty or seventy miles. It was “on top,” high above the streams and trees and paved roads. Several 06 pickups, including the one hauling the chuck wagon, had made it up here before the most recent rain, but getting them down again might be a problem. Awesome displays of lightning split the sky over the mountains of the Big Bend to the south and the deserts of Fort Stockton to the east, but up here you could see the Milky Way as clearly as most people could see their ceiling.
Hard rain battered the camp again during the night. A wet, dark chill settled over the top country several hours before daylight, and a full moon flooded the sky with an eerie radiance. Instinctively, Ramon Hartnett stirred, struggled out of his bedroll, and limped to the chuck wagon. He added four large logs to the smoldering bed of coals and warmed his old bones for a few minutes before starting the coffee. For a man with bad knees, Ramon moved about with considerable authority; cowboys who stood between Ramon and the fire felt a shovelful of hot coals under their back pockets. Ramon had cowboyed for the 06 and other ranches for 40 years and had been cooking now for 25. People who knew him said he looked 20 years younger out here on the range. At home he could barely walk across the room, but out here he joked and clowned and sometimes jumped on a horse and tore off down a canyon.
Ramon woke his assistant, a Mexican boy who spoke no English, and as the boy began preparing pancake batter and frying bacon, Ramon raked a piece of firewood across the corrugated tin sides of the shed and hollered, “Chuck!” Tent flaps opened, and the cowboys began crawling out, boots first. It was going to be a long day, the day they moved the bulk of the herd from the top country down to the holding pens at headquarters.
Breakfast was pancakes, bacon, eggs, and chili colorado, left over from last night’s supper. Nobody ate better than the cowboys at the 06. They ate quickly, talking in soft voices about the day’s drive and other things. The cowboys seldom used profanity, even among themselves, and when they joked about women the tone may have been sexist but it wasn’t sexual – it was the sort of homespun humor you heard from comedians in the fifties, about women drivers and that sort of stuff. They were unfailingly polite, especially to strangers, and even the give and take among equals showed a respect rare among professionals. When breakfast was finished, Ramon leaned on the handle of his shovel and watched the cowboys jingle their morning horses. It was still dark, but he could see the flicker of ropes in the remuda.
When the men had saddled and mounted, Chris Lacy divided them into four groups, each headed by an 06 regular. Diane Lacy and their two children rode with Chris. Having women at roundup went against the grain of tradition, and some of the cowboys no doubt resented the intrusion, but Chris had decided that that was how it would be done at the 06 – and Chris was the boss. Besides, Diane could ride with the best of them.
The groups fanned out in separate directions, making a wide circle through the canyons and draws, gathering cattle as they found them. I rode with Ty Holland’s crew, sticking close to Ron Goddard as we moved slowly through heavy brush, down rocky canyons, and across endless meadows. Though we could see for miles in all directions, we didn’t see a single cow for nearly two hours. Most of the time I couldn’t even see Ty Holland or the other two cowboys in our group, but Goddard knew where they were. “It’s important we don’t get behind or ahead of them,” he told me. “We could miss some cattle.” We stopped for a time and sat astride our mounts, listening to the wind. We could see the remuda strung out on the other side of the canyon, moving across the top of the next ridge to a camp called Number Eight, where we would meet up with the other groups around noon and saddle fresh horses before driving the herd down to headquarters. There the herd would rest for a few days and recover from the drive before being loaded into trucks and shipped.
Presently Goddard spotted another rider scrambling up a ravine of brush, chasing a group of seven or eight calves. He spurred his mount to head them off and turn them along the opposite side of the ridge, toward Number Eight. I followed him around the ridge, and we stopped again on the opposite side of the mountain, above a draw leading up another hill to our rendezvous point. Ty Holland rode up beside us. “We’re going down and work that brush,” he told me. “Stay here and watch for strays.” I interpreted that to mean “Stay the hell out of our way,” which I did.
For more than an hour I sat there, astride an exceptionally gentle horse named Preacher, studying the spectacular terrain. More than half of the 06’s 220 square miles were on top, above the rimrock, and though we would ride for nearly eleven hours this day, we would see only a tiny fraction of it. Nobody, including Mr. Kokernot himself, had ever seen all of it. Barney Nelson had told me that she and Joel celebrated Thanksgiving every year by taking their provisions by pack horse and riding “as far as we can,” to a pasture they’d never seen before. Sitting alone up there, I got a sense of why they loved it so desperately and had an insight into the meaning of a quote I’d underlined in one of Barney’s newspaper articles: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map.”
We didn’t stop for lunch. When the herd had come together at the Number Eight pens, the cowboys saddled fresh horses from the remuda and we started down with the herd. We dropped off into a canyon and topped out through a pass, then down another smaller canyon and up a hill. From the crest of the hill we could see the great valley of Number Seven and the dirt road that led to headquarters. Polk’s Peak was off to our left. I could just make out Clayton Williams’ flagpole naked on the horizon. The herd had spread out now into a long oval, with a point man out front, eight riders at the flanks, and the others riding drag, picking up strays and laggards. The horses were almost as expert as the riders. When a slobbering, mud-caked old bull at the rear of the herd turned back uphill, my horse, Preacher, wheeled around, and before I knew what had happened I had caught the bull and brought him back to the herd. I looked at Chris Lacy, hoping my grin wasn’t as foolish as it felt.
“Let’s take ‘em all the way to Abilene,” I shouted.
“If you’re sure there’s a railroad,” the 06 boss shouted back.
At the floor of the valley, near a tank, the cowboys circled the herd and held it while Chris and Diane Lacy and Joel Nelson cut out the steer calves and their mamas, separating them from the cows with heifer calves and the young calves that had been born since spring branding. The heifer calves would be returned to their home pastures to help rebuild the herd, as would the young calves and most of the mother cows. The mothers of steer calves would lead their children to the shipping pens, then most of them would also be turned back to pasture. That was part of the grisly cycle of ranching – the mamas literally led their babies to slaughter, then, by some ancient homing instinct, found their own way back to pasture, where they would breed again. When the mother cows had gotten worn out, they, too, would go to slaughter, ending up, in the inglorious argot of the industry, as “cheaper cuts.”
It was late afternoon before we headed back up top to Number Nine. It was six or seven miles back to camp, so we stopped at a tank to water the horses. Nobody had eaten or had a drink of water since before daylight. Cowboys never carry canteens, Diane Lacy had warned me. They think canteens are sissy. When one cowboy dismounted, scraped away the scum, and drank from the tank, another said, “Hey H.A., there’s a dead bird in that tank.” H.A. said he didn’t care. “It’s a buzzard,” the other cowboy added. By the time we returned to camp, riding at full gallop, I had blisters on my hand from gripping the saddle horn, and I could barely walk. I calculated that I had ridden fifteen miles that day. Joel and the others had ridden at least twice that far, every day for two weeks, and they still had two weeks to go. Ramon had supper ready – steak, fried potatoes, camp bread, and cherry cobbler. I ate and was in my bedroll before dark. Another squall hit camp that night, but I didn’t hear a thing.
They broke camp the following morning. From Number Nine they moved to headquarters, to Number Five, to Cienega, back to headquarters, to Willow Springs, to Berrendo Flat, and finally back to headquarters again. By the end of October the last of the cattle had been shipped. Normally the 06 shipped between two thousand and three thousand cattle, but this year the total was barely more than a thousand. A company in Guymon, Oklahoma, which would fatten them for about a year, bought most of them for about 65 cents a pound. The ranch’s gross income for the year would come to about $350,000.
In early november I visited Clayton Williams’ roundup. Williams’ crew consisted of eight regular cowboys, mostly from his other Texas ranches, and a handful of neighbors. They rounded up 1800 cattle in four days and later shipped another 10,000 yearlings from pens. Williams didn’t actually “ship” cattle in the traditional sense, meaning he didn’t sell them. Instead, he transferred them to wheatfields, feedlots, and his irrigated farm in Fort Stockton. Later he would sell them at auction. “I’m waiting for the market to adjust,” he said. “The 06 and most of the others are selling right now for sixty-five cents a pound. I can’t tell you what I’ll get, but it’ll be about double what they’re getting now.”
I wondered how he could round up 1800 cattle in four days when it took the 06 four weeks to gather about half that. Of course it was easier to gather cattle on the flats than it was in high country, but still the difference seemed enormous. “I can tell you in one word,” he said. “Improvements.” Because of the extensive cross-fencing, he had pens and corrals scattered all over the ranch. His pastures were pens, huge pens, which meant, among other things, that there wasn’t much rounding up to do. You could ride across the 06 for hours without seeing a single cow, but on Williams’ place cows were thick as flies. Williams and his crew worked on horseback; they could just as easily have used pickups or ever motor-scooters. It was quicker, cheaper, and considerably more efficient than the elaborate ritual at the 06.
“Another thing,” Clayton Williams said, unable to resist a parting shot. “I imagine all those TV cameras slowed down the 06.” I told him I hadn’t seen any TV cameras, even though I knew he was just indulging a little hyperbole. Clayton snapped up his chaps and mounted. “I may be a poor cowboy,” he said, “but I’m one helluva cowman.”