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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...