By Kurt Markus
The IL Ranch begins where electricity and paved roads end. In this isolated sage country of northern Nevada, IL buckaroos follow a team-drawn wagon that pulls out in the spring and stays out till autumn. Originally published in the November 1980 issue of Western Horseman.
Part I: Wagon at the Winters
“It is a severe expanse of desert country, and each man, woman, and child has more than a section of land in which to stretch. One of the West’s last frontiers, the western mood lives and tarries, unwilling to fade; a man is appraised for his true worth, and sham has no place in this section of Nevada.” - Nevada’s Northeast Frontier, by Edna B. Patterson
Ken Scott lives in Elko now, in his own hotel, the Pioneer on Commercial Street. He’s an old-timer, and like many cowboys who punched cows before barbed wire divvied up the West, he has memories of trailing several thousand cows to railheads, working mammoth herds in the open, and spending the majority of his days ahorse-back and out with the wagon. Nothing before or since has impressed him much, and he shares the common old-timer view that cowboys and cowboying have been diluted beyond recognition. Ken Scott was the IL’s wagon boss for 13 years, beginning in the mid-1920s, when men like W.H. Moffat and John G. Taylor lorded over this and other big spreads in northern Nevada, running both sheep and cattle in numbers that boggle our modern imagination.
Although today’s IL buckaroos bow to Ken’s heyday—indeed, they fairly embrace the traditions of that era—they, too, will have their day to talk tough horses and spit on the new crop of hands just coming on. Tom and Smitty and the boys will lift glasses to the time last May when they held a herd in a rodear against a single fence and branded 200 calves in a day that wore through patience and clothing.
They had gathered the day before and, deciding the gather was too big to work that afternoon, they threw the cattle into a trap to spend the night. The next morning, in the shapeless light coming before the sun, the seven rode out, leaving behind Vern the cook and their gypsy camp of tepees, bed and chuckwagons, and a cavvy of horses.
By 6:30 a.m., they had a branding fire going, the herd bunched, and two ropers were necking calves and leading them through the sage to the ground crew. When the last calf was worked and turned loose, it was late afternoon, and the only respite for the IL buckaroos in those near cloudless hours was a tug on a small canteen and a used, quart-size 7-Up bottle that were repeatedly filled with water from a well a couple miles away.
Back at the wagon, there would be no baths to wash away the thick dust and caked blood; they would eat and retire to bedrolls with the sweat of that day and add to it the next. These men may be living in one of the West’s last frontiers, but it’s a world of rough edges and extremes, and the seesaw life has consequences. Time and distance are the common cures, but the buckaroo nowadays is more than ever a man with time running low and few places to head to.
The IL is a popular stop on the drifter’s circuit which laces northern Nevada and eastern Oregon and sometimes twists into parts of Arizona, Wyoming and Montana—wherever there’s still open country and dally roping. If a man wants work on an outfit that runs a team-drawn wagon—a wagon that rolls out in spring and stays out till autumn —there are few ranches other than the IL he can choose from. And when the cattle are gathered and trailed to headquarters before winter, a buckaroo remains horseback, living out of the bunkhouse and tending to the more mundane workaday chores that go along with getting cattle ready to ship, weaning, sorting, and calving. Although the IL isn’t the biggest outfit in the territory, it ranks high among the biggest, with 5,000 mother cows, 1,000 replacement heifers, an additional 2,500 summer pasture cattle, and 5,000 sheep running over 1,200,000 acres of both deeded and government land. Although the ranch has separate farm and mechanic crews, the entire spread is worked by the one buckaroo crew, following the wagon from one camp to the next.
The ranch legacy is rich, and the place has been owned and worked by a parade of men with colorful heritages of their own. The area was initially a corridor to points farther west, and the pioneers and gold seekers merely passed through, seldom staying longer than it took to fix a wheel or rest a horse. Then, as now, it was sage country, making it convenient to travel over but not particularly beautiful to the eye of the early settlers who had dreams of building a cabin in California’s storied lushness. This was before precious metals were unearthed in Nevada.
The boom years in the late 1800s were the beginnings of big-outfit ranching. Not only did the hordes of mining men need quantities of beef, there was a new market back east made accessible by the coming of the railroad. It was a reckless season of speculation, and the gold and silver fever infected the ranching business. Isaac Laurence Requa had already made his fortune in mining and railroading when he decided to acquire land in northern Nevada, and his first two initials served to name the new operation engulfing the fine meadow land along the South Fork of the Owyhee River, about 85 miles north of Elko. The IL, ranches along the Independence Mountains, and outfits to the east and south prospered until the 1889-1890 winter. The killing snow and cold cut the cattle population by half, and caught the overextended outside owners with their hands in empty pockets. Many outfits went belly-up. Those that fought back and held on learned a lesson of ranching survival on the northern Nevada ranges: cattle must be brought in and fed during the winter; the days of free grazing the year-round were over.
Once stung, the halfhearted investors cleared out and left behind a tough core of men dedicated to ranching. At the same time, the emphasis on sheer numbers of cattle shifted slightly to better quality beef, and Herefords and other purebred cattle began to replace the Longhorn stock which were remnants of the famous Texas cattle drive days. With hay to be cut and better livestock to tend, outfits began to set down roots and construct permanent quarters; the IL took shape.
The façade of the place has changed little in the intervening years, weathering eight ownership changes in the century since Requa. It’s a 40-mile journey over improved gravel roads to IL headquarters, and the only close paved highway is north-south State 51 which connects Mountain Home, Idaho, to Elko. It helps to have a full gas tank and a guide to find the way to Billy Maupin’s white ranch manager’s house with the screened-in front porch. You can follow telephone lines, but not power poles because the electricity dead ends long before you hit Billy’s place; the IL gets juice from its own plant, the big generator humming alongside the bunkhouse in the cluster of houses, sheds, barns, and corrals.
Billy Maupin is in his middle years and a very busy fellow. His background is buckaroo, but the symbolic hats he wears around the ranch take in cook, rosinjaw (buckaroo lingo for farmer), cowboy, and shepherd. Billy is the glue holding it all together, a job made even more demanding by the fact that the separate crews are not by nature a happy family, and sometimes barely tolerate walking communal ground. This dilemma is not unique to the IL.
But if a man wants to make ranching his life, if he’s got a family and wants more income and security, holding down the ranch manager slot for a big outfit is close to first billing in the profession. Billy’s been the manager at the IL since Robert Halliday’s company, Roaring Springs Associates, bought out Allied in 1976; Halliday knew Billy when Roaring Springs owned a large buckaroo spread in eastern Oregon, and liking Bill’s steady ways and experience, asked him to quit cowboying, move south, and take on a new ration of responsibilities. Not every good cowboy has the stuff of a foreman, and throughout the West young men have often commanded crews filled with hands twice their age simply because they had a leadership knack. More rare than capable buckaroo bosses are skilled managers.
When Billy was installed as manager, the buckaroos pulled a mechanized wagon and trailered a lot, methods which were becoming typical practice in the region. Three years ago, the cow boss at that time, Sam Collins, believed the gasoline-fueled method was falling apart, and advised that the way to get more work done and save punishment on the outfit’s cowboys and livestock was to bring back the traditional wagon and team. The idea won quick acceptance, thanks in part, no doubt, to the fact that what could be cheaper than sending a buckaroo crew to live out on the desert for six months? Only three concessions were made to the 20th century: rubber tires—all the way around on both wagons—a propane oven for Cookie, and an old pickup truck seat on the bed wagon. The buckaroos welcomed the change, too, and took heart that maybe the IL’s wagon would inspire other outfits to do the same. And who knows? they fantasized, the West might rise again. Besides, six months away from the incessant drone of the ranch generator couldn’t be all bad.
Parked out on the desert, at a spot they call the Winters, the bed wagon, cowboy range tepees, and chuckwagon with the front fly stretched taut over the tongue and the mess tent squared up around the chuck box formed a remarkable, lonely oasis in the expanse of treeless earth. Despite repeated confirmation by Bill Maupin that the setup is functional, an outsider can’t help entertaining the thought that the IL wagon fits the dictionary description of quixotic: caught up in the romance of noble deeds or unreachable ideas; romantic without regard to practicality.
A couple of days out with the wagon will scatter romantic notions. Especially if you’d been with the current buckaroo boss, Tom Anderson, jigger boss Harold “Smitty” Smith, John Adamson, Mike Thomas, John Koepke, Jake Dalton, and Harley Kelly in the spring when the rain wouldn’t quit and the bottoms of the tepees filled with water. For two weeks it came down. Finally, the wet spell broke and the men began gathering and branding and choking in dirt and heat. Mike had a transistor radio but the batteries were dead; for entertainment, there were horses to be shod. What saved the experience from ruin were the land and sky’s moments of quiet beauty and a 73-year-old retired Merchant Marine cook with a name nostalgic of seafaring men.
Vern Chidester smokes a pipe, the kind you’d imagine a sailor to use, with the stem curling downward from his mouth, the bowl hugging his chin. During the weeks they were at the Winters, Vern would climb up into the bed wagon seat in the afternoon and scan the horizon for a sign of the riders coming back to camp. Perched there, he cut the image of the deck hand pulling watch, puffing at his pipe, the evening breeze hurrying the smoke away, adding the illusion that the wagon was adrift in a sea of sage. As soon as they came into view, he’d ease his thin body to the ground, slip back under the mess tent, and put the finishing touches on the evening meal so that when the buckaroos arrived, supper would be hot and ready.
It was never necessary to clang a triangle or holler come-and-get-it. Not with Vern’s cooking waiting. In the morning, the buckaroos seldom spoke except to say, “Thanks, Cookie,” as they piled their plates and utensils into the wash tub and exited. Vern might query Tom when they’d be back that day, and you can bet all ears were tuned to the reply. Cowboy law dictates that it’s poor form to ask about the day’s work; the cook, however, is often privy to inside information, and follows a code of his own. The mood at supper was laid back, and the men sat on hay bales and talked and drank coffee. Vern’s stories weren’t Western, but they were tales to hold interest.
During World War II, Vern shipped back and forth across the Atlantic aboard transport and cargo vessels, and when one of the cowboys asked if he was ever shot at, he answered, “Twice. In the same day. We were unloading in Murmansk when Nazi dive bombers blew my ship out of the water. I was thrown overboard into the icy Barents Sea. A British cruising ship pulled me out, stood me under a hot shower, wrapped me in blankets, and handed me a drinking glass full of brandy. I wasn’t aboard a new ship more than a couple of hours when the dive bombers returned and sank her, too. The same British craft rescued me again. They were as dumbfounded as I was when they hoisted me topside and offered more brandy.”
Vern Chidester is not a common wagon cook. Nor is he a common individual. It is a troublesome chore for a ranch to hunt up a cook who will tolerate range conditions and few or no days off; once found and hired, the new cook is apt to quit without notice. The big outfits north of Elko have sometimes had to cart derelicts from the streets of that city to fill vacancies; and as befell the IL on one occasion, have the replacement take one look under the tent, witness the crude arrangement, and ask to be driven the 85 miles back to town without having fixed a single meal. Vern packs a quart of Jim Beam in his bedroll. “All chuckwagon cooks are drunks and winos, including me,” he volunteers in half truth, holding up the bottle, but on the job he’s solid, thick with a sense of duty that won’t allow him to fail a friend.