Being a rancher may be tough today, but it’s not as tough as in the days of Roy and Wade Reid.

I recently finished The Cattlemen by W.R. McAfee. Published in 1989, it chronicles the lives of two brothers, Roy and Wade Reid, in the Barilla Mountains north of Fort Davis, Texas. They came to the area in 1910, and through cattle trades saved up enough to purchase land in what was the best ranch country they had ever seen. 

Through the years they weathered World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, dozens of droughts, bad markets, crooked money lenders, blackleg and screwworms. They did this not because they couldn’t find work elsewhere, but because ranching was all they ever envisioned for themselves. Today we might call it a dream. I don’t know if they were quite that poetic.

Cowboys work cattle horseback just as brothers Roy and Wade Reid in the early 1900s.
Resilient ranchers of the past paved the way for today’s cowboys.
Photo by Bob Welch

They once roped a bear and, being unarmed, stoned it to death. Through the years, they each broke dozens of bones and endured hundreds of wrecks horseback and later, with machinery. 

When they first started putting their ranch together, there were no improvements, so for a decade they slept on the ground in their bedrolls. At some point they built a small shack to keep their stove and food out of the weather—but kept sleeping outside until one of the brothers married. Only then did they build a house.

One year, during the Great Depression, the only clothes they bought—for the entire year—was a pair of jeans. 

“Truth is, we couldn’t afford anything else,” Roy says in the book. “But we had ourselves, our horses, our saddles and gear, our cattle, and something to eat. We did all our own work, too.”

The stories contained in this rambling narrative brought one, simple concept to mind: sacrifice. As I read, I became increasingly ashamed of how much I have and how easily it has come to me. In our time, we don’t understand work, struggle and appreciating the fruits of our labor like Roy and Wade did.

Besides a proper house, their only shared luxury was a radio—Roy like to listen to baseball games. Wade’s luxury was less frivolous. During a blizzard as a young man his feet froze and he developed rheumatism, his toes curling up under his feet. As a result of that infirmity, he liked socks. Roy liked tobacco, so they figured those expenditures were about even.

It’s achingly tempting to stand on a soapbox at this moment and spew forth a screed on how unwilling we are to work for our rewards and how little we sacrifice for our comforts. Instead, though, I think the better advice is to read The Cattlemen, or any number of frontier-taming books like it (InterwovenCharles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman; or Cowboys Who Rode Proudly, to name a few), and consider just how much those who came before us mean to our present comforts. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. 

And maybe that will lead us to a deep consideration of exactly what we ought to be sacrificing for future generations of Americans. 

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