LEATHER WHIPS, WITH DEER FEET for handles. His name was Eusebio, and he had been my grandmother’s ranch manager, or head vaquero, for forever. He lived on the ranch even after he retired, and as kids my brother, Mitch, and I would spend afternoons with him. While he braided the leather, or made a halter or a headstall, Eusebio would tell us stories. One time he recounted how, when he was young (which seemed just after the demise of dinosaurs), some bandits had come up from Mexico to steal cattle. When he came upon them one evening, he said, they chased him through the brush and fired at him. But just as the shot rang through the air, his horse jumped, and by some miracle the bullet went into the back of his saddle.
As a wide-eyed four-year-old, I imagined this to be the cowboy way: a life of horse-riding, outlaw-fighting, whip-wielding adventure. Eusebio is still one of my first memories of a real cowboy. Of course, as I grew up, I came to temper this mental image with the realities of the ranch. Our cowboys weren’t lone adventurers. They had families—we had about five cowboy families living here—and we were more or less a little community, with parallel generations. Eusebio, for one, had children who grew up on the ranch with my father. They eventually became my parents’ head vaqueros, and then their children played and rode the school bus with us. Life was intertwined: It was the cowboys who taught Mitch and me how to play baseball; after five o’clock, once everyone got off work, we would all get a game going. Or some days the cowboys might start cooking dinner right after five, in which case Mitch would head straight to the bunkhouse to share in the meal. (He loved eating with the cowboys—plus a second dinner with us.)
Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but none of the cowboys’ kids we grew up with stayed to work on the ranch. They moved to town instead: One of them is a paraprofessional at my son Royse’s school, for example; another works in the police department; and another is a city commissioner. So we all still see each other, but it’s easier nowadays for families to be closer to town. Modernity taking over, I suppose. The truth is that the ranch’s needs have changed too. We still have cowboys, but they are fewer—we employ five—and their work is more specialized. There’s Julián, who lives down the road on our Ojo de Agua property with his wife, Elida, and their three children; Robert, who lives here on the ranch with his wife, Soyla, and their daughter; Mike, who also lives on the ranch; and Rigo and Javier, who commute. There’s not a bunkhouse these days, because we just don’t have that many laborers, and there’s not a head cowboy either—that position is reserved for Mitch and me. We’ll often contract out our fencing and repair jobs, and no one is just out riding the range anymore. There isn’t time.
And the cowboys themselves have changed. They still have families, of course, and there’s very much a sense of community at the ranch. Their kids play with our kids, in fact, just as in the past. But now they might have higher-ed degrees, and their wives, as most women do these days, work too. (Soyla, for example, drives about an hour every day to her job as a licensed master social worker, and Elida works at a children’s clothing store we own in Raymondville.) Perhaps more noticeably, the tools of the trade have evolved. Today’s most prized possession? The Nextel phone. It saves us so much time; if you have a sick calf out in a pasture, you just call to get assistance. Then there are the Rangers. Cowboys still use horses, yes, but the ATVs have changed everything. It’s no longer “I’m going to ride out to the back of the ranch and check a pasture, and I’ll be back after lunch.” Now we allocate the same amount of acreage-checking to about an hour and a half. Some ranches, like the one next door, even gather their cows with the help of helicopters.
Subtler changes come to mind too. Our cowboys used to carry these little green books that fit in their back pockets, and in them they’d record calving information, including babies’ tattoo numbers. At the end of the year, when it was time to brand, we’d collect the books and refer to them for our branding numbers. Nowadays? All that tattoo information goes into an Excel spreadsheet. When we cull, brand, or register the cattle, I just refer to my laptop. A funnier story: The other day, Mitch was castrating a show steer, and Royse was anxious to watch the undertaking. When Mitch and I were little, this fascinated us. We’d hang out with the cowboys as they castrated the calves and listen for the pop when they threw the mountain oysters on the branding fire. (Good times!) Mitch would of course partake in the delicacies; I never developed the stomach. Well, for my son there’s not much appeal in this age-old event. Shortly after Mitch got to work, Royse came back into the house looking pale. He wanted no part of the fruits of that labor.
What hasn’t changed with time is a cowboy’s love for the land and the cattle. It certainly isn’t the most glamorous or high-paying of jobs, so if you’re in this line of work, it’s because you’ve chosen it. We’ve found that cowboys who are from South Texas, like we are, fit best with the ranch. It just seems to work better if you’re from here and understand the Valley. You have to love nature and be comfortable with who you are, so imports don’t usually last very long. (An exception, of course, would be my husband, David, a Dallas import but a happily adapted one.) To survive in South Texas, you have to understand the slower pace, the sense of family. Plus the weather—there’s the heat, period—and the isolation.
So where’s that leave the Thomas Ranch cowboy of today? (Let me say here that, given my own role in all this, I actually prefer the phrase “cattle person.”) Times may change, but the place is the same, and we’re all still in this together. In fact, had you sat in on last week’s baseball games, you might have felt that bond. The ranch sponsors two teams: On the minor boys’ team, Julián’s oldest plays with Royse, and his youngest plays T-ball with my daughter, Claudette, and nieces Logan and Lauren. (Morgan, my eldest niece, is on a girls’ softball team sponsored by Nopalito Ranch.) Mitch is a coach, as is David. My mother and father attend all the games; our cowboys do too. As I sat there in the dugout with Linda, my sister-in-law (we’re the team moms), I was struck with the distinct sense that some things are the same as always.