The story of the last cowboy has been written, a movie was made, but out in a rolling pasture near Hamilton, Texas, the final scene has not been cut; the last word is still unwritten. There is a sound like distant thunder. Over the horizon, emerging from the early morning haze, a herd of cattle appear, driven by a group of mounted hands, silhouetted against the myriad shades of green in early spring.
Calls of “Yip, yip,” “Get up,” and “Come on,” drift down to the corral, where another herd has already been gathered. Several riders on horseback work the corral, separating the calves and cows. With some fancy footwork from well-trained horses, the calves are quickly separated from the cows and funneled into another pen. There, a branding iron, vaccination equipment, ear tags, and medicines, along with rancher Buddy Lane and his crew of daywork cowboys, friends, and neighbors await.
A heeler rides into the group of calves, snagging one by its back legs, dragging it close to the branding oven. There, two cowboys work to flip the calf, one using its tail on one end, with the other cowboy quickly seating himself on the calf’s neck to immobilize it, while the heeler holds tension on the roped animal. Vet tech and day worker Holly Crews is on hand to administer vaccinations and a health check, while the branding iron is applied to the calf’s hip. A male calf is castrated in the same process, an operation taking only seconds, ending with a quick squirt of iodine and a somewhat dazed calf quickly released to rejoin its herd mates.
The branding team works like a well-oiled machine, the entire process taking less than a minute in most cases. The team acts without any obvious direction, rotating through each position, seeming to sense instinctively when to step in and when to stand back. The only words spoken are an occasional comment on a calf’s health or a quiet joke. The work is hot, dirty, and dangerous, as evidenced by a loose hoof flung within inches of a cowboy’s face, which draws several smiles from the crew and a pained grin from the victim.
The modern-day cowboy, like those working on Buddy Lane’s crew, hires out for what is called daywork, traveling from ranch to ranch with his horse and gear, doing whatever needs to be done. Team member Creath Switzer described the job. “I cowboy, daywork. Shoe horses too. Grew up west of here, in a little town called Blanket. I knew somebody that worked for Buddy, and he needed somebody else. Been doing the journey cowboy thing all my life, I guess. If you’re working for somebody, like here, you get up pretty early and saddle your horse, and they’ll tell you what pasture or headquarters to meet at. If you’re working on a big outfit where you’re there for weeks at a time, then you stay in a bunkhouse. And everybody does everything together; they get up and feed the horses pretty early, and everybody saddles up at 4:30 or 5 and then get to work. And if it’s a pretty trotty outfit, you trot everywhere, but sometimes you trailer to a pasture or something like that. If it’s branding season, which is this time of the year, you drag all the calves like we’re doing today. And if it’s shipping season, which is in the fall, then you’re bringing the cows in and sorting the calves off and weaning them.”
Buddy Lane’s outfit works the cattle from horseback, without chutes, tables, or vehicles. The only visual difference between the roundup this spring and one from 150 years ago on the Texas range is the propane-fired branding oven.
Switzer explained why the old ways are still the best: “Working cattle on horseback is easier than working with an ATV. There’s no comparison. None. Most people that use a four-wheeler or whatever, they don’t know anything about a horse, so it would be a wreck if they did do it. Probably a wreck anyway. But you get an outfit that does it horseback, it works. Like today, we’ve done four or five pastures today; you’ve got a crew that’s bringing them in, and you’ve got a crew that’s working them, and a good crew, where everybody’s doing their job, it takes 20 seconds to work a calf. Like up in South Dakota, you’d drag 2,000 head before three o’clock. That’s a big crew. So there’s no comparison. But you can’t tell somebody that that don’t know. And most people that use a four-wheeler and stuff like that, they don’t know how to do it on a horse. I know how to do it both ways. Horseback is easier on the cattle, easier on the calves. There’s no comparison. Why would you want to own a cow and not use a horse? It sure don’t pay that good. Cattle get dead acting when you use ATVs. They get to where you can hardly even push them ’cause they’re just kind of lulled, you know. You’ve almost got to bump them with thatfour-wheeler just to keep them at a walk. With a horse they’ll trail out. If you’ve got an old cow that’s switching back and forth, you can do a lot more. A four-wheeler can’t keep up with it ’cause they have to have a big turn. So you spoil your cattle.”
Watching the work, it is evident that this is not simply a job. There is more to this than a paycheck. In fact, the name of the game seems to be who can work the hardest and fastest, while making the least amount of noise in response to pain. Doing daywork the old-fashioned way is not a job. It is a lifestyle.
Unlike Switzer, who is a full-time cowboy, some members of the crew work other jobs but save time for the work they love the most. Many are friends and neighbors as well, who trade work among themselves, a tradition among Texas ranchers. “Whenever the season is going, I’m going,” roundup boss Johnny Cleveland said. “Whenever it’s not, I bale hay in the summer, run a dozer, and whatever to make a dime; that’s about what I do. So this is what I like to do. But, you know, sometimes the cowboy life isn’t a real high-paying job. You got to like it, you know, in order to do it. Because, you know, you make 125 or 150 dollars a day and drive 60 miles one way; it’s not that you’re doing it to make a living. You’re doing it because you like it.”
Hard work, love for the land and the animals, and a brotherhood amongst friends and neighbors that is little less than a code for living in every life situation is the bedrock that cements the crew and brings them out again and again to round up cattle. “It’s a great way of life and a great way to raise kids,” said cowboy Craig Means. “But it’s a poor way to make a living. And it is, but I couldn’t trade for it. I’m out in God’s creation every day. We feel like we are stewards of God’s country; this is all his, and we’re stewards of it. It’s hard, but it’s good. I love it. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
“It doesn’t matter whatever the job is, they see the need, and they can step to it. These guys have been doing a lot together for a lot of years,” Lane said. Lane and his crew joke about retirement, but it is evident not one of them intends to ever do it. Despite the fact that Lane has been working cattle this way for six decades, when asked about hanging up his spurs, Lane replied with a grin, “My last horse hasn’t been born yet.” The crew around him laugh but know exactly how he feels.
The last cowboys are probably not born yet either, if the young kids practicing their loops during branding day are any indication. Lane and his crew, along with four of his grandchildren, still practice the old way, not only the skills of roping, riding, and wrestling calves, but the character that is built by following a code of behavior. In Hamilton, Texas, they are handing down this knowledge to the next generation.