The Last Empire

A rootless steamboat captain carved the King Ranch out of the frontier more than a century ago. Today Captain King’s descendants, rooted in the land he conquered, struggle to hold his legacy together.

The two men seem to be floating quietly on a sea of cattle. They ride through the herd slowly, without rippling its surface. The rust-colored Santa Gertrudis cattle make room for them, then close back in from every side, jamming the riders’ legs against the flanks of their horses. Their hands are folded across their saddle horns; only their cowboy hats move, almost imperceptibly, as they study the cattle. The vaqueros surrounding the herd sit motionless, slumped into their saddles, silhouetted against the early morning sun. As the herd mills about, a cow or calf occasionally escapes, but the vaqueros chase it back, then resume their posts. When the two men in the middle of the herd decide which cows they will cut out of it, this pastoral scene will explode.

It is late July, roundup time on the King Ranch in South Texas. By nine in the morning the temperature is approaching 100 degrees. The deep azure sky is unmarked by clouds. The herd sends up a cloud of dust that mutes the harsh sunlight so that the cattle and the vaqueros are bathed in a subtle haze. The sound is deafening. Horses neigh and sputter. The cattle are in full voice, up and down the register from high tenor to deep bass. Upwind, where a few Longhorns form the nucleus of a second herd, other cattle add their voices with the antiphony of a fugue.

Only the men are quiet. If a calf escapes they may wave their cowboy hats and whoop at it as they gallop in pursuit. But to communicate with each other is considered unnecessary and in bad form. Every now and then one of them will point out a cow to be cut, briefly lifting one knobby finger over the saddle horn. But mostly they move with the precision of a silent drill team. They have all done this work many times before. Both men and horses know their roles. Almost all the vaqueros were born on the ranch. Some are fourth- and fifth-generation Kineños, or King’s men, as they have been known ever since a steamboat captain named Richard King persuaded an entire Mexican village to cross the Rio Grande and work at his cow camp on the prairie almost 130 years ago.

The roundup is the last remaining tradition of the open range. At the King Ranch’s Norias Division — 238,000 acres that stretch westward from the Gulf of Mexico — the ritual hasn’t changed in more than a century. The technology is ancient but effective: spurs, chaps, ropes, brands, horses. The cattle trucks are discreetly hidden behind a mesquite thicket, as if in apology for their intrusion on this frontier tableau. At the ranch’s three other nearby divisions, as in most of the American West, cattle are worked in pens and sometimes even gathered by helicopter. But at Norias, where the sandy pastures are choked by mesquite, huisache, ebony, shin oak, and granjeno, cattle are still worked on horseback, in the open. To gather this herd took the Kineños a week of hot and dusty labor in thickets so deep and thorny that another vaquero fifteen feet away was invisible.

One of the two men bobbing in the middle of the herd of a thousand or so cattle is Stephen Kleberg, known to everyone as Tio, which is Spanish for “uncle.” His great-grandfather married the youngest daughter of Richard King, the founder of the King Ranch. Since 1886, the year after King died, a Kleberg has run the ranch. In 1974 there were four male Klebergs who outranked Tio on the ranch, but so many changes have come to the ranch since then that for the past year Tio has been the senior Kleberg. He is 34 years old, with bright blue eyes, fair skin, and a blond handlebar moustache that spills down the lower half of his face. He is not tall — about five foot seven or so — but wiry and erect, like a boxer. On horseback he is a study in shades of russet and tan. His narrow shotgun chaps are a weathered rawhide, his hat is beige, and around his neck is a red bandanna. His horse is the same deep red as the cattle.

The man with him is Lavoyger Durham, the boss of the Norias Division. Two years older than Tio and his opposite in looks, Lavoyger is tall, with dark skin and hair and a strong, jutting jaw. Like Peter McBride of the Encino Division next door. Lavoyger is a third-generation foreman. He is related to Tio and to the vaqueros, a man from both of the great family traditions of the ranch. His grandfather was a Texas Ranger who married Richard King’s niece and went to work on the ranch in 1878; his father, Ed Durham, ran Norias before him and married the daughter of one of the head Kineños.

Watching them closely is Joe Stiles. Joe is 33, tall, bowlegged, and squinty-eyed. His father is the foreman of the Santa Gertrudis Division outside Kingsville, sixty miles north of Norias. Joe manages the ranch’s quarter horse program, which accounts for his close attention to Tio’s riding. The horse Tio is using to cut cattle on this rough pasture is Mr. San Peppy, the ranch’s prize stallion and a $4 million quarter horse. But like everything on the ranch, Peppy has no value unless he can work. “I’d rather he died cutting cattle,” Joe says, “than in a show barn.”

Three experienced in-laws in their sixties direct the ranch’s larger corporate fortunes, but the ranch itself and its 130 years of tradition are in the hands of these young men and others like them, a new generation in its twenties and thirties with its own ideas about how to do things. The ranch, for example, now contains one of the largest farms in South Texas; it has its own feed mill and feedlot and a completely reorganized quarter horse program. It has cut

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