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.”
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.”
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.”