Family Ranch

Buckarooing on the MC

ranch horses

One week last spring, the MC Ranch buckaroos moved 1,600 head of cattle almost 70 miles. For those Oregon cowboys, the drive was nothing extraordinary because they’re horseback every day, six and seven days a week, all year long. They’re living proof that the range-riding cowboy is not dead.

It was still dark when Chet Carnahan pulled the bay gelding’s head around moved cat-like into the saddle. Luckily, Carnahan’s off leg found the stirrup before Pepper popped. There, in the eerie half light just before dawn, among the scattered bunkhouses and barns of the Jack Creep camp, Carnahan and Pepper tested one another. Pepper’s bucks were uniform, strong, lengthy, and classic; Carnahan’s ride was text-book perfect, spurring at just the right moment and keeping balance with fluid movements of the free hand. The two pitched about for a long time, perhaps half a minute or more, before Pepper quit. One of the mounted buckaroos who had witnessed the event mumbled with obvious respect in a voice barely audible: “Damn, that’s western.”

Photo by Kurt Markus.

The scene at Jack Creek was one of many “western” happenings during the 6-day, 70-mile cattle drive from the MC Ranch headquarters in Adel, Ore., to the northern desert range. Dry cows—more than 1,600 of them—were at times strung out as long as two miles, and from high ground the sight of these cows twisting through the sage across the horizon was spellbinding. It was grand not because it called up images of trail drives a hundred years ago, but because it is happening now. No dreams or imaginings. Real cattle and real cowboys moving across open and unpopulated country. And don’t believe the recurrent rumor that the day of the cowboy is over; old-style ranching is still very much alive in many places of the west.

The million-acre MC Ranch sits in the heart of buckaroo territory—a four-state area in the Northwest comprised of Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and parts of California. The Spanish influence is obvious. The name “buckaroo” is itself Spanish in origin—vaquero—but the pronunciation has been mangled and Americanized to its present form. Spanish-style tack and horsemanship have survived with few modifications.

The saddle Carnahan had cinched to Pepper’s back, for example, was a single-rigged, slick-forked, high-cantled affair reminiscent of the saddles used by West Coast cowboys in the 1800s. Carnahan’s saddle was, like his ancestor’s, custom-made, as were his silver-inlaid spurs and spur leathers. And if Carnahan had been riding one of the “bridle” horses in his string of eight instead of the raw-edged Pepper, he would have bitted up with a silver-mounted spade complete with braided rawhide reins and romal. As it was, Pepper’s temperament and training dictated that Carnahan use the snaffle and braided mohair reins. The snaffle and the spade are the two basic bits in the buckaroo’s repertoire, and only after a horse is responding to his rider is he moved from a snaffle to a spade. Such a horse is a “bridle” horse.

Of the six horses crashing about in a small corral the frozen April morning of Carnahan’s ride, only a couple were “bridle” quality. And in close quarters, bridle horses are given equal respect with the broncs.

The buckaroo boss, Don Hill, his second-in-command jigger boss, Frank Stanford, and buckaroos Chet Carnahan, John “Flint” Schmetz, Anton “Tony” Sarmento, and Tom Hudson had begun the day at 3:30 a.m. The two previous days were spent pushing the cows from the pastures near ranch headquarters, up over Greaser Pass, and into Jack Creep camp, an old homestead 20 miles east. The drive had gone according to plan: the first afternoon the cows were moved 5 miles to a trap (small pasture) at the foot of Greaser; the next day the buckaroos trailered to the trap and pushed the drys 15 miles along Highway 140 to Jack Creek, Jack Creek sits in the middle of the Guano Valley, a smooth, sage-pocked floor walled in on the east by cliffs and flanked to the west by rolling hills.

Snow fell at right angles and the valley was crusted with ice. ‘Ain’t this glamorous?’ one of the buckaroos hollered as he pointed his reluctant horse into the mire.

The buckaroos urged the cows past the main house (which serves as both sleeping quarters and cook shack) and into the valley for the night. Additional horses from the buckaroos’ strings had been trailered to Jack Creek before the drive had begun, and were pastured nearby. After the horses had been unsaddled and turned out to graze, and after the big afternoon meal, the entire remuda was run into the rope corral where Hill and Stanford roped out the horses for the next day. These six horses were kept up in a small corral adjacent to the tack shed.

Two MC cowboys turn back a herd-quitting cow during the first day’s drive. Photo by Kurt Markus.

Breakfast was served by Frank’s wife, Charlene, at 4:00. It was a meal of abundance, prepared with the knowledge that hard work was to be done and many hours would pass before the buckaroos would sit again at the table.

The MC wagon was retired several years ago, but the battered Jack Creek house is a welcome sight after a full day in the saddle, especially when the weather is foul. Each afternoon Charlene would watch from the kitchen window for the two bright yellow MC pickups and stock trailers stirring dust across the valley on their way back to camp. When they were in view, she’d slide last-minute goodies in the gas stove so that by the time the buckaroos had arrived and unloaded, a fresh and hot meal would be on the table. On one day, it was 12 hours between meals, and there was little conversation when the hands grabbed forks and passed plates heaved with frijoles, roast, potatoes, salad, and rich desserts. Everyone remembered, without fail, to thank the cook when empty plates were finally carried to the kitchen. A coffee pot was hot and handy all day and into the evening.

Flint had not slept well, he reported during breakfast, downing another biscuit. The small bunkhouse he, Tom, and Tony bedded down in was victim to the winds, and snow-flecked air whirled through the cracks and about his head. Although there is no electricity or running water at Jack Creek, each building has a heat source of some kind, either wood burning or fuel oil. The fire in the bunkhouse had died early in the evening and none of the three wished to crawl out from their bedrolls to rekindle it. This kind of existence is also “western,” not because it’s enjoyable but because this is the way cowboys have lived for decades.

The MC crew pushes the drag into the holding area at the Jack Creek camp. Photo by Kurt Markus.

Consider, too, the cowboy’s traditional clothing. It’s been designed to meet a specific need (the buckaroo’s high-topped riding boot, for example, is fitted with an undershot heel to prevent the boot from slipping through the stirrup), but only a few items do an admirable job of keeping the wearer warm. Chaps or chinks are worn for protection when riding through heavy brush or while handling calves during branding, but freezing weather can rip right through them. A western hat will shield the sun and offer some protection from unexpected contact with branches, but ears are left totally exposed. Boots are hopeless, and a rider’s fee are always cold. Discomfort, it seems, is a cowboy’s lot.

When he noticed that the buckaroo boss was finishing his last cup of coffee for the morning and was pulling himself from the chair, Chet anticipated Hill’s call to action by saying, “Well, I guess I’d better get my costume on.” The cowboy’s lot is also humor, whenever and wherever he can muster it.

A little levity helps quiet the nerves when you know you have to walk into a pen of half-wild horses blanketed in the night’s lingering darkness. Armed with horsehair McCartys (mecates) and rawhide bosals, the buckaroos groped through the barn/tack room, and, after spooking the horses from a larger to a smaller corral, they moved carefully to secure their mounts for the day. The sound of the large roweled spurs was sufficient to set the horses careening off one another and into the sides of the chute. It seemed like a large mixing bowl, the corral did, until the buckaroos were able to separate and corner a few horses (not necessarily of the bridle variety) and remove them from the melee. The morning before, Chet had been sandwiched between two roughhousing horses and narrowly escaped injury.

Once the horses had been saddled and topped off (Carnahan needed a few additional minutes to reposition his saddle after his bronc ride), Hill led the crew the short distance to where the cows had been deposited the previous afternoon and gave instructions as to who was to go where, and in what direction the cows were to be pushed. The heavy cloud cover diffused the sunrise to a gray pall; snow occasionally full, driven at right angles by a steady wind. Much of the standing water in the valley was crusted with a thin layer of ice—“Ain’t this glamorous?” one of the buckaroos hollered to no one in particular while he urged his reluctant gelding into the mire.

Hill was worried. It was two or three miles across the valley to higher ground and a couple cows had already been trapped in deep bog holes even before the gather was completed. Hill envisioned several more cows littering the valley like dead bodies on a great battlefield. Later, when the crisis was over and the cows were safe on firm footing, Hill would laugh at his anxiety.

The beauty of the open MC rangeland is enhanced by the sight of 1,600 cattle strung out for miles. Photo by Kurt Markus.

If anything, Hill knows the MC Ranch as well as anyone can know such vast property. He was born close by and as a school boy had helped out on the ranch when they were shorthanded. After high school, he became a full-time buckaroo at the MC, and of his nearly 20-year buckaroo career, all but two have been on the MC; the interlude was spent on the sprawling ZX Ranch in Paisley, Ore., a two-hour drive west.

Twenty years is a lifetime in the saddle. A buckarooing job on one of the bigger ranches usually means a “straight-riding job”: no fence fixing or tractor driving. Six days a week (and often on Sundays) a buckaroo will be horseback from morning to late afternoon, and even if the work on a particular day is not physically demanding, the weather and miles take their toll. And come branding time on the MC, the buckaroos get all the roping they want—and then some. In four days last spring, the crew branded 2,000 calves.

Typically, the MC crew unwinds with as much bravado as they display while working. The married men—Don and Frank—have homes and wives to comfort them after a branding or a week-long trail drive; this does not imply that they won’t be seen tipping a beer at the Adel General Store with the men after hours. The bachelors’ outlook is different. Their entertainment comes in intense doses, and when Flint says, “Let’s make a ‘power run’ the Klamath Falls,” you know that something will happen.

The spirit of the power run is that there’s a bit of daring involved. For instance, says it’s 7 p.m. and the buckaroos have finished the evening supper and they’re back in the Grain Camp (the concrete, disarrayed MC headquarters bunkhouse), attending to a few chores or just reading. Say, too, that it’s a Wednesday and the 6 a.m. breakfast will be served whether anyone shows up or not. For added adventure, let’s make Thursday a day to brand, a day which will call for the buckaroo’s full attention.

It takes a couple horse to drive to Klamath Falls from sleepy Adel, and the road is a two-lane, winding snake. This is what makes a power run challenging; bad roads and long distances are worthy opponents.

After carousing Klamath until most of the bars have closed, it’s back to Adel, in time to put the costume on and saddle up. Breakfast is expendable. Headaches are commonplace. Invariable, someone will say, “I’ll never do that again,” but nobody holds him to the oath. It will be broken in a week.

This kind of life ages a man beyond his time. It’s not that the buckaroos particularly like cramming all this activity into a small space, but they’ve little choice. There isn’t a social life in Adel for unmarrieds and there’s not enough free hours to search for enjoyment elsewhere. “That’s why buckaroos seldom stay at one place for more than a year,” joked Kent Craven, a former MC buckaroo, now on the ZX. “They have to quit to get time off.”

For some men unfamiliar with buckarooing, the spartan life is too big a jolt for their civilized systems, and they don’t last a week on the job. Hill laughs incredulously about the time he got a phone call from a young man hunting work: “Sure I got a bedroll,” he said in response to Hill’s query.

In order to get to the summer desert range, the cows had to be driven over high ground still capped with snow. Photo by Kurt Markus.

“What about a rig? Do you have your own rig?” Hill pressed.

“Yes, I got my own bareback rigging and bronc spurs,” the man answered.
Hill explained that he meant a saddle and bridle, and that getting on a bronc out in the open or in one of the corrals around headquarters was a whole lot different than fitting a ride on a bucking horse at a rodeo. The young man politely said thanks for talking to him, but he had changed his mind about the job.

Buckaroos don’t fancy themselves as slick horse trainers and few compete in rodeos, so other than ranch work they’ve no place to exhibit their skills. But to watch the buckaroo boss and jigger boss rope out horses for the next day’s work, and to see the men handle big, spooky horses, is to observe craftsmen. Each buckaroo is responsible or shoeing his own string of horses and keeping his animals fit, as well as providing his own gear, which can total more than $3,000. Experienced buckaroos say they can read a new man’s history in a hurry just by looking over his appearance and rig, and by scrutinizing his horse handling. “And no one hesitates to try out a newcomer who brags,” Craven says.

Craven adds that there are two ingredients that will hold a buckaroo to a job. “One is a good crew,” he says, “and the other is good horses,” Heads nod in agreement.

“Good” does not mean gentle horses. Oddly, young buckaroos like Chet Carnahan need snorty horses, like Pepper. A horse with wide eyes and trembling flesh will cause a buckaroo’s adrenaline to pump, and when you consider that much of a buckaroo’s work is monotonous, a surge of adrenaline is a welcome elixir. A good horse will sometimes try to unload his rider, but essentially he’s honest and straightforward on his effort; a mean horse will strike when least expected, and he will quit a rider at the minute he’s needed most.

Of the 65 horses in the MC cavvy, few—if any—will quit. The horses aren’t especially attractive, but they can carry a buckaroo all day over rough terrain and, if they have to, without water. On the fifth day of the drive, the buckaroos’ horses were asked to gather cows spread widely over steep hills, push the trail-weary cows still higher through a notch leading to the desert range, and then, after the cows had reached the night’s trap, turn around and trot back to the trailers several miles away.

It was a day and a ride to remember, Jingle bobs danced off the big roweled spurs and ‘wild rags’ snapped in the wind.

When the horses were turned away from the cattle that afternoon, they sensed they were going home, and despite tiredness they picked up their feet cleanly and their heads bobbed easily in time with the gait. Don Hill led the way; traditionally, the buckaroo boss rides out front, and to move ahead of him is a serious breach of range etiquette. The weather had finally cleared and the afternoon sun shone. It was a day and a ride to remember, with jingle bobs dancing off the big rowels and “wild rags” (colorful, large, silk scarves worn around the neck) lightly snapping. Up high, the six of them rode through snow drifts chest deep, and down low through snow drifts chest deep, and down low through valleys filled with the sweet smell of sage. Moments like these haunt a buckaroo out of work. He is caught in a terrible dilemma: the life is too demanding to endure, but too rewarding to quit.

Tom Hudson gives his horse Chipmunk a breather. Photo by Kurt Markus.

The final day’s drive was to be the most difficult. In order to get to the last day’s trap, the horses had to be trailered over Dougherty Slide (a treacherous road climbing out of Guano Valley leading to Denio, Nev., and Winnemucca—places a buckaroo can spend two month’s wages in one evening’s lust) to the back part of the ranch, a one-way drive of 52 miles. The ranch owners, the Wolfsen family from Los Banos, Calif., privately own about 40,000 MC acres, and run their several thousand cattle on nearly 900,000 acres of BLM land. Included in the MC empire is a trucking line to take cattle to MC feedlots, and a self-sufficient farm operation providing grain and hay for cattle and horses; Bill Lane is the ranch manager.

The MC running stock is reasonably well-maintained, but the abuse to pickups and stock trailers is enormous. Other than the state highway cutting through Adel, there are no paved roads, and in the more distant areas of the ranch, the roads are often unnavigable with washouts and piles of blown sand. It was over one of these neglected back roads that the pickup and four-horse trailer Frank Stanford was piloting sank frame-deep into wet sand. The mood inside the crew cab was not joyous; 40 miles from nowhere is no place to get stuck. The fact that earlier in the week Frank’s trailer had lost a tire—the entire hub and tire, gone—didn’t help, either (an MC mechanic had replaced the wheel that evening).

After unloading the horses and unhooking the trailers, Hill was able to jockey his new three-quarter ton into position and winch the crew cab out. Another crisis over. More ahead.

The Jack Creek rope corral. Photo by Kurt Markus.

The horses and cattle held up just fine even though it was noon before the scattered cows were rooted from their grazing on the high ground bordering the flat desert. But when the buckaroos had finished moving the cows to their final destination near Surveyor Lakes and had loped and trotted back to the trailers, additional mechanical nightmares were in store. On the way out, both trucks began sputtering. Ahead was a series of switchbacks, and some were made even more tricky with patches of snow. It was a weary but thankful crew who arrived at Jack Creek after nursing sick machines over these barriers. On the MC, trucks and trailers are a despised but necessary compromise.

Regardless of the allowances the buckaroo has made to modernization, his life style is closer to the range-riding cowboy of 100 years ago than most people would guess. MC buckaroos, and other buckaroos and cowboys like them are fiercely proud of their western identity, and if ever at a loss for words about their emotions, they can always tell you about the time they were riding a wild cayuse on a morning circle when all of a sudden. . . . . Horses, they will tell you, are worth talking about.

This article was originally published in the July 1979 issue of Western Horseman.

1 thought on “Buckarooing on the MC”

  1. I left the Bare Ranch in Aug., 1974 and headed up Surprize Valley looking for a Buckaroo job. Stopped at the MC and was asked where I came from, who I worked for and if I could shoe. Answered all and was told I could go to work but my wife was going to have to cook. Married less than six months and she was twenty years old and from a small city. I said not at this time. Got a job later that weekend at the ZX and we lived ther almost three years.


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