The future is shaky for old-west style ranching. Former Bell Ranch wagon boss Gary Morton is caught in the web of that uncertainty, and is, in a sense, a victim of the times.

You just don’t read about good ranch cowboys. They don’t win ribbons, haul to a lot of rodeos, endorse western wear, or write training articles for horse magazines. No matter how good they are at their work, they’re simply not news, not even when they die. Sure, you might see headlines about big ranch owners, but they’re another story. Ranch owners have been known to play tennis and travel to Hawaii, but cowboys, well, other than a week off to see the in-laws, they pretty much stick close to what they know best.

And part of being a cowboy is having a blood bond to the profession; it’s not the role you slip in and out of with a simple change of attire. They hat and boots don’t come off when you go to town or meet with bankers or whenever it might be in your favor to be something other than a cowboy. The real ones wear the badge in good times and bad, it makes no difference.

Ask the former wagon boss for one of the biggest outfits in the west—the Bell Ranch out of Tucumcari, N.M.—about the bad times, and you’ll get an honest account. Twenty-eight-year-old Gary Morton is now sampling the rough road as an eyewitness, hoping the route is not one way and praying his days in limbo won’t last forever. When his wagon boss job soured for him last year, Gary quit, thinking it would be a snap to land an equal-if-not-better riding job elsewhere. “I looked hard and heavy,” Gary recalls, “for three months. I didn’t want to take just the first job that came along and spend a month there and then have to move on. A feller misses a lot if he works on one outfit for three months and then leaves. When it really gets good is after your first year on a ranch.” Morton can also tell you the corollary to his theorem: the longer you’re out of the saddle, the more you yearn for cow country, horses, and punchers.

Morton is not the first to travel this road, but mark this point well: the path he follows twists in unnatural ways. Gary recently dipped his hands into a beautiful black pot called art, a pot that can comfort or scald, sometimes in a loud hiss, all at once, without warned. The satisfaction of creating bonzes and oils of western scenes makes his time away from big outfits go down more smoothly, but the ghost of possible success in the art world entices him away from a breed he greatly admires—cowboys content to be cowboys.

The future is shaky for the big outfit cowboy. Former Bell Ranch wagon boss Gary Morton is caught in the web of that uncertainty.
Photo by Bank Langmore.

Gary Morton has an option. He can sell just enough of his art to squeeze out an existence for himself, his wife Susie, and their two children, but the starving artist routine wears thin quick. Other cowboys without second talents are forced to take jobs as they turn up; they also keep their hands in the business, and in the world of the cowboy, nothing counts as much as experience. Even the jobs on the small, two-man operations add to the repertoire of campfire and bunkhouse stories, without which a cowboy has a little. Cowboyin is a life style and a big store of memories, and until he recently signed on with a northern New Mexico outfit, Gary Morton had but a memory of the former and a small store of the latter.

But don’t imagine that Gary Morton is the odd duck. He’s the typical young man who followed a dream to become a cowboy, became one, and was thereafter hopelessly hooked on what could be the last of the truly quixotic, lonely ways to spend the days. It’s rough work, but for the man who quits struggling to be something else, it can be immensely rewarding. Alas, the sweet plums don’t linger, they ripen in a flash, and soon fall to earth; cowboys can labor for only so long under a boss they don’t respect or on horses that won’t quit bucking or in country that loses its magic. And while the old-timers used to move around a lot to satisfy their desires, the big ranches are now breaking up, and the number and types of jobs worth holding for younger men are getting fewer. The young cowboy—the Gary Morton cowboy—faces a dwindling world, and for those who have been bitten hard by the life of the range-riding cowboy, withdrawal is a painful proposition.

Morton slides to a slouching position in the chair and folds a leg over the other, exposing the full length of his 19-inch Paul Bond boots. He’s visiting friends in Santa Fe for a few days, and while he talks, Susie sits away from the circle of conversation but fixes herself on every word that’s said. The two Morton children play with new Christmas toys.

Gary has grown a beard and his hands have lost some of their customary coarseness, accumulated after much work in the open. There’s a quality of refinement about him that belies the rough work he’s committed himself to; he’s a cowboy, but he’s a man apart. His Thoughts tumble out in careful doses as if he holds a deep respect and possibly a fear for spoken words. His large fingers surround a cup of steaming coffee and he remembers his initiation to the cowboy world, nine years ago.

“I called several ranches around Tucumcari, and they didn’t need anyone, and then I called the Bell Ranch. Around Tucumcari, that’s the place. Kind of sits on a pedestal. I never dreamed of getting on there, but I called them anyway, and they said, ‘Yes, we’d like to talk to you.’

“I met the ranch manager, George Ellis, in town, and we talked. He asked if I could ride broncs, and because I’d done some rodeoing in high school, I said yes. Of course, at that time I didn’t know the difference between a ranch bronc and a rodeo bronc.

“A friend hauled me out to the ranch and left me. I was scared to death; watching my friend drive away was like being at my own funeral. I had heard all kinds of stories about the ranch and about old Spanish-Americans and how tough they were. People said there were some who were 100 years old and that they were still fightin’ and scrappin’.

“The horses the ranch gave me were all broncs, and I sure thought I was in hell for a while. But I got so hooked on it, I just couldn’t accept the fact that them horses could buck me off anytime they wanted to. The first thing I said was, ‘I’m going to stay here until I can ride these broncs.’ I finally did ride ‘em.”

Being able to stay aboard rank horses didn’t end Morton’s headaches. Two months after he signed on, the Bell Ranch wagon pulled out for the fall works, under the general manager George Ellis, when the wagon went out it stayed out. “If the weather turned bad,” Morton winced, “and if it stayed that way for three or four days, he might come get ya and then he might not.” There weren’t any vehicles handy either and what the situation equaled was isolation.

“Myself and the wagon boss, Leo Turner, were the only gringos with the wagon at that time. Almighty,” Morton drawled, spitting out the words, “those fellas sure gave me hell. I couldn’t ride a horse very well and they’d throw their hats under my horse, and get me bucked off; if I’d be holding the saddle horn, they’d ride up and slap my hand with a rope.

“I told Leo one night I was going to quit, and he said, ‘Don’t you dare. If we have to, we’ll get a fence post and beat all their heads in, but don’t you quit on me.’ I thought I was going to die any day, but thinking back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one bit. They taught me in the cowboy way. There are things I probably wouldn’t have learned had they not treated me rough, and when they saw I was going to stick it out, they became some of my best friends.”

The future is shaky for the big outfit cowboy. Former Bell Ranch wagon boss Gary Morton is caught in the web of that uncertainty.
Photo by Bank Langmore.

Gary Morton’s account is apt to set old-timers’ heads nodding. The education of a cowboy is pretty close to universal, despite different traditions and methods of handling horses and cattle in different parts of the country, once a man graduates, he travels in elite company. There’s always the talk about how “it ain’t nearly as tough now as it was when I was makin’ a hand,” but the stern initiation still serves to separate the pretenders. And if there’s one particular quality that runs consistent in those who do make the grade it’s the ability to take the licks, and not take them personally. If you can say that a cowboy has a lot of try, you’ve paid him high respect.

“The old-timers will help you,” says Wyoming rancher Bob Douglas, veteran of several years’ experience on big spreads, “if you’ve got try. If you’re interested, they’ll teach—it’s not a hidden culture if anything—but first you’ve got to show you’re willing.” Douglas was fortunate to have worked on the Sheridan, Wyo., outfits—the Kendrick Cattle Co. and Willcutt—plus the John Scott operation out of Hardin, Mont., in his formative years, back in the days just before modern ranching took strong hold. Douglas is only 40, but cowboys grow up fast in the midst of weathered punchers; he’s old enough now to look back with a bit of objectivity.

What Douglas remembers, and Morton, too, is the degree of respect demanded by the older hands. The admiration, and in cases hero worship, was usually freely given.

“A cowboy is a pretty proud creature,” Douglas says. “And the older ones take a lot a pride in their equipment and in the way they do things. An old cowboy is terrible easy to insult, because there’s a right way, a wrong way, and his way. Some are real touchy; if you look at ‘em cross-eyed, it’s wrong. But don’t misunderstand, even though they were always screamin’ at me, I was learning and I enjoyed it. I didn’t have to guess whether or not I was doing something right—if they weren’t hollerin’, I was okay.”

Gary Morton echoes Douglas’ regard for age. “If I die tomorrow, I won’t feel like I missed anything because I met the best man in the world. Leo Turner. He’s got a heart of gold, and if you asked him about somebody he hates, he wouldn’t say a word. ‘Oh, he’s all right, I guess,’ he’d say. Leo is old west. I know there must have been times he got made enough to kill me, but he never got mad at me but once—and I don’t really remember what it was about. He’s been in the saddle for 50 years.

“Wes Adams isn’t what you’d call an old-timer, but he’s sure got the spirit of the old west. Some people might think he’s crazy, but I think he’s smart. He’s a guy who might not say anything for two or three days, but when he said something, and it might not be but one sentence, it would mean more than somebody else talking all day. He never talked much but he said a lot.

“He was quite a different character when he got drunk. Talked your head off then. One night, when everybody was playing cards at headquarters, Wes got drunk and walked out to his wrangling horse, ol’ Papago. He saddled up, got his 30-30 and scabbard, strapped it on his saddle, rolled his bed and tied it to the back of the saddle—imagine that big bedroll straddling the horse’s butt—and mounted. Wes and Papago loped around the bunkhouse with Wes shooting his 30-30 in the air and yellin’, ‘Boys, I’m stealin’ the horses and I’m going to Mexico!’ It was all a joke, of course. Wes would never do anything to hurt a person.

“Cowboys are a wild sort,” Morton throws in. “Most of the cowboys I know hold on to the image created a century ago. The majority won’t back down from a fight and sure like to raise hell.”

Endearing traits, perhaps, but imagine the dilemma of the man bossing a cowboy crew. The priorities of the ranch general manager sometimes run counter to the desire of the hired hand, and given the cowboy’s strong-willed, independent nature, it takes a special breed to dish out orders. The general manager stands in a no man’s land between the owner and the help; it’s difficult for him to associate freely with either part, and his can be a solitary job.

What does a boss look for in a cowboy who might later become a foreman? Don Hofman, Bell Ranch general manager, says honesty ranks tops on his list. “And of course,” he adds, “they’ve got to be aggressive and take a leader’s job. There’ll be easy times, and then we’ll have days when the hours are long. The advice I give the young men is just get on the ball and get after it, and somebody will be watching.”

The late George Ellis, Hofman’s distinguished predecessor, wrote in his book, Bell Ranch As I Knew It, “We did get a few undesirables. One could never tell when hiring a new man just how he would turn out. But none of the less desirables lasted very long. We never had any of the bad, law-breaking kind pictured in so many western movies and described in some western stories.”

The Bell Ranch is one of the few outfits offering long hours in the saddle and a way of life reminiscent of days past. The ranch fields 14 full-time hands, 10 of whom are cowboys with riding jobs. Many big ranches have been split up by investors and land speculators, but Bell Ranch owner Bill Lane has charted an opposite course, and instead of whittling down the large New Mexico ranch, he’s added to it, bringing the total acreage to 292,000. No one is calling Lane’s expansion a visionary financial move; rather, it signals his commitment to a way of life now in death throes.

The Bell Ranch still runs a chuck wagon, although it has long since been motorized. Cowboys will spend a full month in the spring and three months in the fall horseback, all day, every day. In late spring and summer, they’ll spend at least half the day horseback and the other half in a pickup or around headquarters doing chores of some kind.

The ranch also designates a number of cowboys to be camp men, a choice job. Camp men, many of whom are married, live in ranch outbuildings, apart from headquarters, and it is their job to oversee a portion of ranch lands and cattle.

“With the wages a cowboy draws, plus all the other benefits such as housing, beef, medical and dental care, a hand can make a decent living,” explains Hofman. “But it’s not the pay that keeps a cowboy on the job. There’s just no way to describe the feeling of a spring morning with a good horse to ride, everything turning green, and baby calves in all directions.” Hofman adds that he often hires inexperienced people. “I imagine we give more guys a chance than anyone else. I happen to like working with young men. It doesn’t bother me if they don’t know much as long as they have desire—that’s all that really counts.”

Because of its size and reputation, the Bell Ranch attracts a number of drifters. Hofman believes that a variety of experiences gathered from other ranches can help a cowboy advance himself, but there’s also a danger, he qualifies, of getting unrealistic about the kind of jobs available. “We still have a few cowboys who want to play the cowboy like they had 50 years ago, and who say they won’t do anything unless it’s horseback,” Hofman says. “That day and age has passed, and they learn it right quick when they get here. We still do a lot of things that way, but you can’t stand in the way of progress, and there’s no use trying. There are a few cowboys who think their legs are too bowed to get on a tractor, but we don’t have any use for them.”

In few professions is the conflict between the old and the new as evident as it is on big ranches. On the one side, the profit motive pressures the owner and manager to modernize whenever possible; the cowboys resist change because how they go about their jobs can be as important as the product, “A lot of the world is pushed too much today,” Morton believes. “It doesn’t have to be that hurried. A cow can only have one calf a year, no matter how fast you move.

“A big percentage of the cowboys want to be old-timers,” Morton continues. “Everybody would like to turn the clock back. We hang on to the old ways, and the chuck wagon is part of it. You don’t need big hats, high boots, neck rags—all that—to be a cowboy, and I’ve seen good cowboys who’ve worn caps and low-topped boots, but the clothes are all part of a spirit of cowboyin’. If there was a time machine sitting right here, I’d turn it back 100 years, get in it, go back, and blow it up.”

Bob Douglas has a fondness for tradition but his approach is to look hard at the way things are done and select the best approach, regardless if it’s old or new. He says, “Anybody who’s worked around a lot knows that you compile knowledge from every outfit you work for. No matter how sorry, or how sock-and-shoe and outfit may be, there’ll always be one or two things they do that you can catalog and use later. My littler operation here is the result of what I’ve learned. I do things in an economical manner.

“Until somebody shows me a better alternative, though, I’ll stay with the time-tested way. For instance, I won’t go near a calf table. Quite a few of my neighbors have them, and if they need some help come branding time, I tell them I won’t come. But if they want to rope ‘em and drag ‘em to the fire, then I’ll help and help gladly.”

There’s also a matter of range etiquette that has been established over the years, and it’s more or less the equivalent of a standard operating procedure. You won’t find much of this actually spelled out, but the code of behavior is strong, and a green hand would do well to observe the older men and learn the do’s and don’t’s quickly. “Never ride ahead of the boss,” Morton advises. “Maybe you’re riding out in a group going somewhere to start a drive. Heck, you don’t know where they’re going or how they’re going to do it, so you certainly shouldn’t be in the lead or ahead of the man.

“It’s a pretty bad deal, too, when the boss has to say something about one of your horses. That’s about as low as a feller can get, and you should always take top care of your string.

“A little common sense is all you need. If I hire on to an outfit, I never ask about my horses. It’s more or less admitting you’re scared of them. If the horses are bad, they might tell you, but they might not. It’s up to you to find out.”

Douglas recalls a misunderstanding he experienced a few years ago because he didn’t understand one outfit’s way of handling the remuda. “I was with Willcutt at the time, and was sent as a rep to help brand 5,000 calves on a Montana ranch that was Texas-owned, the John Scott outfit. I took a string of horses with me and when I got there, I turned them loose in the remuda. Next morning, come time to saddle up, I walked to the rope corral to catch my horse for the day. I noticed that everyone else was carrying his bridle, but I didn’t think anything of it. A fellow in the corral asked what horse I wanted. When I said I’d catch him myself, I kind of got off to a bad start, but when I realized that some of our customs in Wyoming were different from his, we got along okay.

“There’s things a young man should know when cattle are being counted. Of course, the old fellows always did the counting, and if us young bucks would get to visiting and talking while they were counting, they’d really get after us. That only happens once.”

Now and then, though, a young cowboy comes along and breaks the rules and not only gets away with it, wins acceptance. “This boy hired on several years ago,” Morton says, “bronc riding fool, he was. He stepped up to the rope corral the first morning with his hat pulled down real low, and his brim was so big he couldn’t see out, I was sure of that. Wild-looking rascal. He was small built, not muscular or anything, and although he had on a good pair of boots, they didn’t have a riding heel and I didn’t take much stock in him.

“if you don’t mind,’ he says to the man ropin’ the horses, ‘I’d have the wild mare’s colts.’” Pretty risky talk for a new man fresh on an outfit.

They caught him every mean, rank, buckin’ bronc in the remuda. And he rode ‘em. And he did a top job of it, you know. When a horse quit bucking, he traded that son of a gun for something that would.”

Don Hofman remembers, with mixed feelings, a young Bell Ranch hand who was “the meanest, most aggravating cowboy I’ve ever known. You couldn’t live with him, and I’m not kidding. He could tear up more stuff than three guys, and would do it just to get another fella to laugh at him. He was also a top cowboy at 20. We’ve had guys here who had been pursuing the trade for six or seven years who couldn’t even follow him. He knew cattle, and if you threw a roundup together and there was any possibility of a herd breaking loose, I guarantee he knew where it was going to come out. And he was one of those cowboys who always had his rope down and was so slick you couldn’t catch him at it. But, any young cowboy is going to slip off and rope something once in a while; they just don’t make them who don’t.”

One thing that has changed in the last few years is the attitude of many of the young men looking for jobs on ranches. While Douglas things there’s a number of good men coming on, too many aren’t prepared mentally to handle the long hours and time away from town. They want weekends off, he says, and many arrive at the ranch accompanied by dogs—not an advisable practice. “They kinda got me fooled,” quips Douglas. “A lot of them look like they can handle themselves—you know, they’ve got the earmark of a cowboy. They have good boots and good hats, but I can usually tell if they’re a hand when they drag out their saddle and bedroll. Most of the good cowboys around here have custom saddles.” Morton remarks that instead of the usual cowboy bedroll consisting of a tarp and quilts, the inexperienced man will arrive with a bright-orange, down sleeping bag.

Should a young man pass the test, though, there’s ample reward for his efforts. What happened to Gary Morton can happen to anyone. Morton stuck out the initiation and stayed with it until his anxieties melted. He believes, “If you do it long enough to find the love for it—and some people keep at it but never find the love—you’ll never be able to get it out of your head. The more you cowboy, the more appetite you get.

“Just ropin’ your first wild cow can get you loving it. That’s got to be a highlight in a cowboy’s life, and it sure is in mine. For me, it happened during the fall works one year when the ranch had bought some additional land and had pastured 4,000 old Mexico steers on it. These animals had rarely seen a cowboy before, and they were wild, plenty wild, wild as deer, they were.

“The first time we made a gatherin’, it was in rough ol’ country and there were 1000 head in this one pasture. It took 15 of us the better part of a day to gather 147 of them wild steers, and that should tell you how spooky they were.

“I was riding a bronc then that had never been roped off, other than when I just sort of played with a rope a few times. Leo Turner and I were going down a rough canyon and wham, we jumped two steers, and as soon as they took off I knew we were going to have to rope and tie them down. I was sure leary about doing it, though, because you have your doubts the first time you rope off a green horse.

“We got to running down this canyon, and I remember crossing one place that was about as big as this room, and there were two big rocks sort of blocking the way with only a small slot between them to squeeze through. This ol’ horse and I were flyin’, and I mean flyin’—I was over-and-underin’ him—but somehow we made it thorugh those rocks.

“As soon as we passed that place, Leo hollered, ‘I’m going to catch this one,’ and the steers split. I knew Leo was going to make his catch and I was hoping I could do the same. My steer came out of the brush into this little opening and I had my chance.

“Well, my horse did real well, but there was that brief moment, tied on hard and fast, when I threw the loop and jerked the slack and said to myself, ‘Pitch it to the wind.’ We got the steers, both of ‘em, and later loaded ‘em into a trailer. Pretty wild west. That’s what the cowboy lives for, the wild chases and the recklessness of it all.”

Morton has dreams of more such adventures. He’s worked from nothing up, and holding down the wagon boss job on a respected ranch like the Bell is a tough act to follow.

What he’d like to do is take another wagon boss job and have the freedom to run the crew as he’d like. He wants to employ the chuck wagon as it was many years ago, and do less trailering to and from distant points on the ranch. He wants to hire a crew of good hands and work them with respect and ability. Ultimately, he’d like to step from the wagon boss job into a ranch manger’s boots, but that’s a feat not often done. Not many cowboys can make the transition from taking to giving orders.

What Morton has his sights on may not seem out of line, but weigh in the fact that many of the big ranches are dying, not growing, and you realize Morton could well be shooting for the moon. And no one likes to see a man chase a falling star.

Gary Morton glances down at the one leg he’s crossed up over the other. He thoughtfully lays his hand on the worn area—rubbed black from spurs—just above the boot heels. “You don’t see many truck drivers with high heels,” he says, looking up. “He might wear his pants outside his boots or in, but you look at those heels and you can tell if he’s a ridin’ man. I read once: ‘His boots are a mark of distinction. A sign that the wearer is a ridin’ man.’”

This article was originally published in the July 1978 issue of Western Horseman.



  1. I missed that one the first time around but it reads as well today as it would have back in ’78. For all the talk of not being able to find riding jobs back then, Kurt went on seven years after that article to make a classic book on riding outfits and Gary found more than one riding job after his time on the Bell. I take great comfort knowing those big outfit jobs still exist today and all those stories told in Kurt’s article could just as easily have been written about events happening last week somewhere out West. And some darn nice photos to accompany those well written words!

  2. Russ Phillips Reply

    I had the good fortune in my 20’s to roam from Arizona to Montana, working riding jobs. This year is the 30th anniversary of letting homesickness get the better of me. It changed me forever and I have always wondered “what if I had stayed…?”

    “When I hired on at the old Double Diamond
    I was a damned poor excuse for a man…”

    Cowboyin made me the man I am today. I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut , and if it was said that I’d made a hand that day that was like dying and hearing God Himself say “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

    I’m not near as experienced or punchy as the fellas in this article. We need more men in this world. Real men. Now, in my 50’s…I still dream about hiring on. The knees and shoulders cry foul, but I still dream about pulling out with one more wagon.

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