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.