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.

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

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