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.

Photo by Bank Langmore.

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.

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  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!

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