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.”

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1 Comment

  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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