The Cowboys’ Lament

The ranks of those who work cattle for a living grow thin, but some maestros persevere.
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Posted April 16, 2008 by Peter Gorman in News

Tater Paschal is up at 5 a.m. at his house in south Cleburne, putting the coffee on, then heading out to his barn to feed his horses, getting ready for another day of cowboying.

It’s what he’s done for most of 40 years, the trade his father and his grandfather followed, and the only thing he’s ever really wanted to do with his life. On this particular day, Tater, 54, a little thick in the body, with gray hair and mustache and blue eyes, saddles up Lena, an 8-year-old smallish quarter horse mare that Paschal said is really good around cattle. “She’s great at sorting out cattle and in the pens. She’s had it bred into her.”

It’s been a rainy spring, so he packs his saddlebags with medicine for pneumonia as well as tools to clean out hoof-rot and iodine to disinfect any areas he might have to cut. “Just your basic cattle-doctoring medicine bag,” as he puts it. On other days, when he’s got to go rope a bull or three, he prefers his much larger 5-year-old black paint-quarter horse cross, Santana. “If I was going to catch a bull, I’d take Santana, because if you’re going to rope something on him, he can hold it.” And he has other horses for other chores.

Their horses saddled, Tater’s dad and grandpa would just have opened the gate, most likely, and headed out for their day’s work from the ranchhouse compound – or maybe, from the chuckwagon encampment far from the house, where they’d spent the night before a roundup. But Tater begins his workday by firing up the teal green, four-door Ford F-350 pickup truck and hitching on the horse trailer. In 2008, being a working cowboy or cowgirl in and around Tarrant County usually means day work – doctoring mama cows on a spread near Meridian one day, hunting strays down in Glen Rose the next.

These days, cowboying in North Texas means putting more miles on your truck than your horse. And, with big spreads almost a thing of the past around Fort Worth, it may mean working for ranch owners whose day jobs are in the city or land owners whose herds are destined for rodeos rather than meat markets. There are still foremen and cowboys working long-term on the handful of big ranches still left in Tarrant and surrounding counties, or riding full time on their own smaller spreads, but their numbers are small and – with the region’s cities growing faster than most in the country – getting smaller by the day.

“You can probably count the good cowboys, the really top-flight hands in Tarrant, on less than two hands,” said Pete Bonds, who runs thousands of head of cattle on north Tarrant County’s Bonds Ranch and other ranches between here and Austin. The list includes Tater and Little George, Bo, a couple of father-son combos, and a few more. Bonds isn’t talking about drugstore, dime-store, movie, singing, or dude-wrangling cowboys. To him and others like him, a cowboy is a human – man or woman – with a horse who works cattle. Period.

In Fort Worth proper, the Cowtown moniker is mostly rodeo and nostalgia, with Stockyards pens turned into shops and mazes for tourist kids to get lost in. But in the dwindling countryside outside of town, where a modern version of ranching is still part of the economy, a man who knows which way a cow is likely to move before she stirs a hoof is still a valuable commodity. Tarrant County, according to agribusiness experts, still produces about 20,000 head of cattle for market each year – about half of what was produced here 30 years ago, and a drop in the bucket next to the 10 million head that came through the Stockyards in their heyday during World War ll.

Even in those days, of course, a large percentage of the cowboys dragging their spurs on the sidewalks in any given day were from someplace outside the county, come to town to buy or sell stock, load up on supplies and, in the days of Hell’s Half Acre, to find as much excitement – drinking, dancing, gambling, and attentions of the opposite sex – as the law would allow, and then some. But Fort Worth and Tarrant County drew a large part of their economy from the cattle business from 1902, when the Stockyards opened, through the mid-1950s.

Cowboying, like the Old West mythos that spawned the profession, has been dying and reinventing itself, of course, almost since the day it started. Ways of life built on wilderness and the frontier don’t last long in a country that inexorably has eaten up the first and tamed the second. The whole era lasted less than 100 years and perhaps a lot less than that, by most estimates. Long-distance cattle drives were mostly a thing of the post-Civil War era, shortening as railroads pushed farther into the West. Open-range ranching gave way to fenced ranches and thence to the help of things like pickup trucks, movable pens, man-made water tanks, and, for the lucky few, extra money from an oil rig or two. Through the years, drought, disease, and hard times have pushed many ranchers – and therefore the cowboys they hired – off the land. Good times, too, in terms of skyrocketing land prices, can do the job just as fast.

“A rancher has to be a businessman,” Bonds said. “Romantic as being a cowboy and a rancher is, land is a commodity. And for a long time the best use of land in Tarrant and the Metroplex area was cattle. But with the housing boom, the best use of the land is in housing. So folks sell off pieces of their ranches, and sometimes they sell them off to the point where there isn’t much left.”

Big ranches survive in Parker County and in many parts of West and South Texas. But with the spreads close to Cowtown disappearing into suburbia, a large percentage of cattle produced around here are being raised by what the old-timers call Saturday night ranchers – people who have 50- to 500-acre “ranchettes,” raise anywhere from a handful to a couple of hundred head of cattle, and get most of their money from Not Ranching. There are hundreds of those operations throughout the Metroplex – which means there are also hundreds of cattle-raisers who don’t know a lot about what they’re doing.
Which is where Paschal and his compadres come in. They can do it all, from branding to hunting strays to doctoring the stock, fixing fences, and delivering the succeeding generations of their four-footed charges.

It’s near sunset on a ranch just south of Tarrant. Four riders slowly surround a small herd of grazing cattle. They don’t say a word as they urge the cattle into a single unit, just get the job done, then move to their places and stop. Stand perfectly still. In moments the cattle quiet down. The lead rider puts his mount into a slow walk, the flank and rear riders follow suit, and the herd is moved effortlessly from a small pasture to a larger one. It looks almost like a ballet. “That’s how you move cattle,” said David Merrill once the pasture gate was closed. “And that’s how cowboys have moved cattle for as long as there have been cowboys on horseback.”


As a fourth-generation cowboy, Merrill knows whereof he speaks. “You talk about a cowboy, you’re talking about someone who can make his own chaps, repair a saddle, doctor a sick cow, help with a breached calf, rope a bull that’s trying to gore him, build fences, you name it.” He needs a dozen other skills that they don’t teach in town, from shoeing horses to knowing feed and grass types to anticipating the moves cattle are going to make and stopping them before they make them. The handful of working cowboys left in Tarrant, Bonds said, “are guys who could come to your ranch and, without anybody telling them what to do, would find their spot and get the cattle moving. Or, you could put them out on a pasture alone, and they’d be able to tend all your cattle.”

George Davis, a huge bear of a man, is called Little George by the people who also label him a top hand. He’s part-owner with Bo Cantrell in the Cleburne Cattle Auction House where he works every Saturday, and he has his own place where he runs about 100 cattle. But putting food on the table means working as a day-hand on several other ranches as well. “To be honest, cowboying is not like it used to be,” he said. “The work itself probably hasn’t changed since the end of the cattle-drive days. You’ve still got to go out there and handle those huge animals, you’ve got to doctor them when they’re sick, you’ve got to move them on horseback and so forth. But these days a guy like me, well, I work a lot of the smaller ranches where the owner doesn’t necessarily know what to do with the cattle, so I come in and do it for them. Some of those only have 40 or 50 head, but they still need a cowboy to take care of them. And I love being a cowboy.”

Like most of the other real cowboys, Davis, 45, was born into it. His father leased out the old Calhoun Ranch at Walnut Springs, and he and another man kept their cattle on it. One of Davis’ early memories is of missing several weeks at the start of second grade so he could help doctor cattle. “We slept in a barn all those weeks, ate over an open fire, and rode horseback,” he remembered. “I guess that’s what made a cowboy out of me.” Davis, who’s always lived in Texas – mostly around Cleburne, Morgan, and Meridian – has never had another job but cowboying or buying cattle. He’s married to a schoolteacher, has three children and one grandchild, and put enough away over the years to let him buy his own place and a piece of the auction house.

There’s not a lot of money in it, but if you’re good you make a decent living. “A lot of the big ranches hire day workers and pay them $65 for the day, but then they supply everything from horses and saddles to food. Around here, you’ve got to make $150 or $200 [a day]to make a living,” Davis said. “And then, if you’ve got to go catch a raging bull, well, you might get $250 to $300 just for catching one.” Almost on cue, he got a call from a rancher in Palo Pinto with a bull loose, asking Davis to come and catch him. Everybody on the place had been trying for days to catch the critter, the rancher said, but while many can chase, few are willing to actually rope an animal that big who’s really stirred up.

“The thing is, you get a shot at the bull, but then once you rope him he gets a shot at you, and if he sticks your horse, you’re done. He’ll poke a big old hole in that horse. And if he guts him, he’ll be dead in 10 minutes. That makes it dangerous work.
“A lot of people get high on drugs,” he said, “but for me there’s nothing higher than roping one of those wild bulls. You see that bull, and the race is on. And the adrenaline starts to rush. It’s a fun deal, and I guess it’s got to be, for me to stay in it as long as I have, ’cause sometimes the money’s not that great. But I don’t have to answer to anyone the next morning. Of course I’ve been bummed up and beat up and have bad shoulders and had broke ribs.”

Tater – big surprise – isn’t Paschal’s real name. “My birth name is Michael, but when I was a youngster I’d go to the old Kowbell Rodeo in Mansfield, and while my friends always had money, I didn’t, so I’d just eat [baked] potatoes or chips. And then one day my friends entered me in the rodeo and the fellow calling it announced that the next rider was Tater Paschal. My friends did it as a joke but it sort of stuck.” So did cowboying. “When I was a little kid, all I wanted to do was grow up to be a cowboy. My father and grandfather did it, and I loved being around the cattle, riding horses, being on the land. And to work cattle professionally, well, being a cowboy is an art. To be able to read the stock, anticipate their moves, well, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Over the years, Paschal has managed ranches from the Brazos River to New Mexico. He even did a stint as a policeman in Weatherford – “I took a job as a mounted officer but after 18 months they put me in a patrol car, and I decided it was time to leave” – but he always came back to being a day-hand. Each morning, he said, “I load up to go wherever I’m needed. I might have to travel 100 miles to get to the ranch I’m going to work, but that’s all right because I know I’m going to get to ride my horses. … Most cowboys will tell you that their horses know more than they do, if they’ve got a good horse.” Paschal’s enthusiasm for his work is apparent in the way he talks about it. “You know, when you’re moving cattle – and I don’t mean 10 head that you can almost bribe with feed – but when you’re moving 100 head or 300, you need a cowboy to drive them.
“And when you are moving them, you work the angles. It’s almost like you’re playing pool. You cut off an angle here or there, and the cows head for the opening you left them. You’re forcing them but letting them think it’s their idea. … You get guys out there moving cattle who don’t know what they’re doing, well, you’ll have them scattering all over, running on you, getting spooked. You’ll cause a wreck if they break the fence, and you’ll get hurt real bad if they come at you.”

Over the years, Paschal has suffered broken legs and ribs, a broken right elbow, a broken collarbone, and concussions. Some of those happened when he was roping big animals and his horse got jerked down. The worst incident “was my own fault,” he said. His horse got away from him and Paschal was still fighting him for control when a barbed-wire fence loomed up. “I decided that if he was going through it, so was I,” he said. “We hit that thing and did a somersault, and that’s when I broke my elbow. … Just the regular stuff that happens when you’re dealing with livestock. Course, when you get a little older you learn to work smarter. Slower and smarter makes it a lot easier on both cowboys and cattle.”

David Merrill, a handsome man with a sun-browned, leathery face and hands like a heavyweight boxer’s, is a fourth-generation cow hand, raised on ranches in Johnson County, with a great-granddad who was the first sheriff of Somervell County. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” he said. By his early teens he was working cattle on weekdays all around Johnson and Hill County and rodeoing on the weekends. He’s got his own place in Hill County, where he runs a couple of dozen head of cattle. His solid-silver belt buckle advertises a 1978 win in bronc riding, and his other rodeo credentials include several top awards. The one he’s most proud of is having been named Texas circuit Pickup Man of the Year eight times, a record that still stands. “The pickup man,” he explained, “is the fellow who comes to get the cowboys off their broncs and bulls if they’re still on them once their time is up. You got to grab them and get them onto your horse without letting the other animal crush them or you or gore your horse.”

One of his favorite moments was being in the bronc riding finals at the Houston Astrodome the last time Elvis Presley sang there. Merrill didn’t win, but he was there with the King. He kept up the two jobs of rodeoing and ranch cowboying until he hit 51 and decided that riding broncs – his specialty – and bulls was wearing him down. “I’d go to San Antonio or Chicago and do a rodeo, then race home and find the phone full of messages from ranchers who wanted to know when the heck I could get out to their places to do some real work.”  Merrill, who makes a good middle-class living as a day-hand, loves the work but isn’t happy about the state of the cattle business in north Texas.

“In West Texas people have inherited the big ranches – ranches with 100,000 or more acres – and they keep them going. But in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, land is being bought and sold, and people get into the ranch business for a few years who’ve never been in the business before. So ranching, or a lot of ranching, has turned into a business for rich people with disposable incomes.” As attractive as it might sound, Merrill said it wouldn’t make sense for him to sign up with just one of those nouveaux ranchers as foreman or full-time hand. “If I went to work and they got out of the business in three or four years, I’d be out of work. Now I could do that in West Texas, but you can’t earn much out there. Here I’ve got regular clients and my own 47 acres and my own cattle, and I’m not tied down. A lot of my clients are weekend ranchers, and I can come in with a crew – which includes my wife and son Jack, who’s a heck of a cow hand – and we can find the strays out in the brush and do anything else that needs doing in a few days. That’s the way I like it.”

Dennis Purviance doesn’t have to worry about small, inexperienced ranch owners going out of business and leaving him without a job. For years, he has been foreman of one of the few remaining large ranches in the area – one whose owners asked that it not be named. “I like getting to know the cattle, knowing the other hands, knowing the ranch. I never get tired of looking out over that vast pasture land and riding over the hills,” Purviance said. He and his son John are almost legendary among local cowboys. You wouldn’t think it to look at him: He looks more like a preacher than a cowboy except for a slight twist to his face from being shot with a .22 as a youngster – “sort of my trademark” – and those leathery workingman’s hands.

“We moved over 1,100 head of cattle on the highway with six cowboys the other day,” he said. “We moved them against the fence and used the highway as a natural path. Of course, with so many [gas-drilling-related] water trucks coming through, it’s getting hard to do that.” He knows that moving cattle is harder than it looks. “A lot of people are good with horses, wonderful riders. And a lot of people think they’d like to be cowboys and try their hand at it. But some people have cow in their head and some don’t. And if you do, that’s a God-given talent.”

Purviance once worked as the only cowboy on a 7,700-acre spread, and doctoring the cattle was one of his major chores, using skills he learned, not from his two grandfathers, both in the cattle business, but from a high school agriculture teacher. “I’d go down there with my medical kit, and I’d work pasture one and two one day, then three and four the next day,” he said. “And then I’d put my horse in my trailer and drive down to what we called the south pasture, which was about three miles away, with a neighbor in between.” Ironically, eradication of a major threat to cattle’s health, the screwworm, has meant that ranchers need far fewer hands these days to handle a herd. Before eradication efforts took hold in 1982, cowboys had to continually be on the lookout for infected animals and then doctor them individually. Like helping cows after difficult births, it wasn’t part of the romantic lore of the cowboy way – but it was a big part of the paycheck reality.

The past probably has as much to do with keeping local cowboys in business as does Americans’ continuing desire for beef. A yearning to be part of the Western tradition – or simply the inbred desire of many Texans to own a piece of land – helps produce the part-time ranchers who hire folks like Merrill and Paschal. Then there are the rodeos, the Wild-West shows, dude ranches, and things like the Fort Worth Herd that ambles down Exchange Boulevard a couple of times a day for the tourists.

Jerry Sartor, 59, runs a herd of more than 300 Longhorns out of several ranches in Hill and Johnson counties. His animals are hired for trail drives, for Western shows and to decorate dude ranches, as well as being sold for roping events and occasionally for beef, but he’s still got to be able to cowboy to keep them healthy. “I’m out at one ranch or another every day. I get up and get my boots and spurs on, take my truck with my horse trailer to where I’ve got to work, and then saddle up and start riding,” he said. The Longhorns and quarter horses he raises have made him a good living for 30 years. “I’ve been around horses and cattle all my life,” he said. “But the biggest thing for me was back in 1966, while I was still in high school.” At a rodeo, “I met this old rancher named Calvin Jones. Well, he had this big old ranch, and he invited me to come work with him in the summer. And I did. I spent every week and month I could get free out there. We ran about 850 mama cows on 108 sections of land [a section is a square mile] on the Jones Ranch. I worked there as often as I could until he died in 1990, and the ranch was left to the Cal Farley Boys’ Ranch in Amarillo.

“One of the things Cal used to say was that the best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse. And that stands true. I love being out there, riding, no phones ringing. It lets a man get in touch with the Lord, so to speak.” From Sartor’s point of view, the biggest change in cowboys’ lives in the last 30 years has been roads. “When I was growing up, you had to ride to where you were going to work, and once you were there you tended to stay out on the range until the work was done. The rancher supplied a chuckwagon and wagons for the cowboys to sleep in.”

Now, a pickup gets him there – and gets him home when the sun goes down. “It doesn’t make sense to have cowboys sleep outside,” he said.  With a pickup, ranchers in many situations can work their cattle without riders. “I travel with a 50-pound cowboy in my pickup,” Sartor said. “That’s cattle feed. And when I come to a fence where I can see my cattle, I just blow my horn, and they come from all over because they know it’s feeding time.”


George McVey and his wife Stacy run the Longhorn M Cattle Company near Mount Vernon, about 100 miles northeast of Dallas. Born into the cattle business, McVey bought this spread on his own, where he runs about 750 Texas Longhorns and 60 horses. His cattle are sold for roping stock from Montana to Louisiana and for the specialty meat market. Longhorn meat, like bison, is lower in cholesterol than traditional beef, he said, and very good eating. Making a living as a cattle rancher is always difficult but usually not impossible, he said. A rancher has to do the cowboying and also keep an eye on the finances – and on the rule that bad years usually follow good ones. “Some of these people who’ve never ranched before come in and buy a ranch, and they’re buying $40,000 tractors when a $12,000 tractor would do. They’ve got notes on their land, on their equipment – heck, even on their stock. Me, I’d rather own things outright.”

McVey’s planning a three-day roundup this week. He’s got cowboys coming in from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tarrant County. “Those are true cowboys. They can ride, rope, and brand,” he said. “It’s three days of castrating bull kids, branding, sorting out cattle, and such. It’s hard work, but its something you never get out of your system.” The Bonds ranch is one of the biggest spreads left in Tarrant, and it’s all business, no nostalgia. There’s also the Walsh ranch, though nearly half of that’s been sold, a Bass family ranch near Benbrook Lake, and a handful of others.  “There’s just not many good-sized places left in Tarrant,” Pete Bonds said. “By good-sized, I mean 5,000 acres or more.” In North Texas, he said, a rancher needs 10 to 15 acres per cow, and 300 to 500 mama cows to provide a decent living. “If you can produce 300 to 500 calves annually and sell them for maybe $500 each after they’re weaned, well, after your expenses” – vaccinations, fencing, branding, buying hay and feed to get the animals through the winter – “you’re coming close to making a living.”

Bonds said that in this part of the country, it used to be true that most people were no more than two generations off the farm or ranch. Now, with all the newcomers and the loss of ranches to development, he thinks for most people working the land is four or five generations back. “They don’t remember going out to Grandpa’s farm or ranch. But to run a ranch, there’s so many things to know and so many things I do that I don’t even know I know, but if you don’t know them, you can’t raise cattle. … My dad bought this ranch back in the 1930s, and I’ve expanded it. And it’s hard, hard work. But I’ll tell you what – doing cowboy work is heaven. Most of your readers would pay to do what I do.”

On a recent Saturday, the Cleburne Cattle Auction House was jumping. The nondeDELETE sheet-metal building looked much like the small industrial businesses surrounding it. The unpaved parking lot, empty all week except for a scattering of empty Skoal tins, was packed with more than 250 trucks and livestock trailers. Plenty of North Texas cattle make their major life transitions here – ranchers buy young calves, 400 to 600 pounds each, put them out to pasture for several months, and then round them up and send them back to feed lots for fattening on corn. When the animals hit about 1,200 pounds, it’s back to the auction barn for a final sayonara.

On catwalks above the pens, buyers and seller milled about. Some were looking for calves, others for steers, others for young bulls. Most were making notes on animals they liked. One fellow was giving a short discourse on animal feed. Someone else was telling anyone who would listen that he’d take a low price on a bull that had twice broken through his fence and run roughshod over neighbors’ property. “And I’m done paying to fix what he breaks. But he’s a good bull. Take a look. Number 190. He’s a beauty if you can handle him … .” Everyone seemed to be moaning about the price of corn, which is up because of the demand for ethanol in gas.

Near noon, the catwalks cleared as the auction got under way. In an amphitheater, a couple of hundred people filled the worn blue Naugahyde seats that faced, not a stage or screen, but a fenced-off dirt floor. Doors and gates slammed open and shut, animals were led in, bought and sold at blinding speed; amid the smell of livestock and cow plop it might have been 1908 and not 2008. Bo Cantrell was overseeing everything, from the unloading of stock to checking with the vet on hand. He owns the auction house with Davis, after a career as a ranch hand on his family’s place just south of Tarrant. Now 75, he looks more like an elegant rancher than a real cowboy. He’s tall, slim, handsome, in pointy-toe boots and a pearl-snap shirt. But like the others, his hands give him away. And like most of the others, he’s an intensely private man.

“Why would anyone want to talk about cowboying? It’s something you either do or you don’t do,” he said. “I’ve done it all my life, and now I let my son do most of it because I’m getting old for wrestling cattle. You want to talk about cowboying, talk about screwworms. That’s the biggest change since I was a boy. And talk about the weather, cause the weather tells you what you can and can’t do.” Someone asked him for a closer look at a pen full of Angus steers, and he was off. In the background the auctioneer prattled. “I’ll start the bidding at 92 cents a pound, do I have 93 cents diggidy, diggidy, 94 cents? Sold for 96 cents … diggidy, diggidy.”

“Real cowboying is an art,” said Red Steagall, the famed cowboy poet and singer. “Like any art, it’s got to be done with passion” – though most wouldn’t use the word. “It’s their life and their lifestyle,” he said. “They’re not tied down to any one job at any time period. Some of them make bits and spurs on the side; their wives may be schoolteachers. There is an exhilaration to working with animals, training young horses … watching the world come to life when you’re outdoors at daylight. It’s a very romantic way of life, but it’s also a very spiritual thing.”

Steagall doesn’t believe today’s cowboys will be the last around here. “Their sons will be cowboys. Times will change, but as long as people want beef or leather car seats, someone’s got to raise the cattle. And the only people who can do that are cowboys.” “You got that right,” said David Merrill when told of Steagall’s comments. “And you’re looking at one. I’m just a cowboy for hire.”

You can reach Peter Gorman at
peterg9@yahoo.com.


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