The Cowboy's Creed
Oh, when I die,
you just bury me
Away out west,
where the wind blows free.
Let cattle rab my tombstone down,
Let coyotes mourn their kin.
Let horses come and paw the mound,
But please, don't fence me in.
Tex Bonnet recited that poem for us in October 1979 in his white frame home on a quiet street in Winnemucca. It was a bright, clear fall day. Bonnet sat straight up in the chair, rested his hands on his knees, and stared ahead through the microphones. We had come to learn about the old buckaroo days and to record the stories, songs, and poems Bonnet knew so well and had become known for. You could tell he was thinking hard about the words as he spoke them. That serious bit of verse from a widely known poem that Bonnet had used over the years could serve as the buckaroo's creed.
The image of cowboys as ramblers and rugged individualists leading Teddy Roosevelt's "strenuous life," who shun the fences of civilization, indeed seems to hold up. They don't pack pistols, they don't croon mournful songs at cattle, they aren't uneducated. But to a man we found them purposeful individualists who cherish their work even while they complain about its inequities and problems. They would rather spend time making wages on horseback or in a line camp removed from town and regular society. These men volunteered for the job. As in any occupation, the laborers' complaints are thoroughly part of the life and the work itself.
"The cowboy" as a subject has been complicated by the national mythmaking process. The misinformation and stereotypes that trickled out of the West in travelers' reports and diatribes in the mid-nineteenth century turned into a flood in illustrated weeklies, dime novels, and wild west shows at century's end. Countless books, articles, radio programs, sound recordings, and Hollywood movies have kept up the flow of simplistic visions of the West. Occasionally movies or books appear presenting a more accurate view of buckaroos, but they make little popular headway. Not only is the image of the past distorted, but most people assume that there are no more buckaroos pushing cows through the bunchgrass.
Even in earlier days there was ample reading material available to cowboys, from the dime novel and True West through loftier literature. In Paradise Valley, buckaroos working in the cow camps do a great deal of reading. They read cattlemen's journals, outdoorsmen's magazines, Reader's Digest, and Smithsonian; popular paperback novels like Rich Man, Poor Man and Oklahoma Crude; and serious nonfiction like buckaroo Herb Pembroke's copy of a history of Russia and pocket editions of the classics. For many, the favorite topics are adventure, western themes, and the outdoor life, but for others something of Shakespeare is preferred. Certainly the particular heap of magazines and paperbacks on any line camp dinner table reflects haphazard selection and collection. Used books are exchanged by the batch at places in Winnemucca and purchased at the Poke and Peek Thrift Shop and the shop in the basement of the historical society museum.
Buckaroos live most of the year in some sort of house on the home ranch, but those who work for the big corporations spend weeks at a time out on the rangelands tending the cattle. They go to and from the camps in trucks, hauling horses, equipment, and supplies as they go. The buckaroo camps are without plumbing, electricity, or other luxuries of civilization. Working "on the mountain" and "on the wagon," many men like it that way. There is solitude, there is work, there is the land.
Many a long afternoon on the mountain (working cattle through the BLM or Forest Service grazing allotment) is spent in camp, when the day's work is done, and the hours are whittled away by an assortment of pastimes. Dave Hiller, a Nevada Vaca corporation cowboy in 1979, spent hours making horse gear from miscellaneous materials salvaged from the home ranch. The steel spurs he makes are not for the cases in the stores in town, but for his job. Bunkhouse furniture is homemade out of lumber highgraded from the ranch, and some buckaroos make their own riatas, macardies, and hackamores as well as lead ropes and other equipment. There is a great pride of workmanship in everything handmade, whether a piece of equipment is created from scratch or decorated to make it one's own.
There used to be a good deal of storytelling around evening cook fires, and sometimes a bit of singing or "music making," too. The stories generally were succinct accounts of scenes from life and history in the region, long personal anecdotes of memorable times, legends, or jokes. Storytelling sessions often commenced, then as now, with one man's offhand complaint or comment about one or another problem of the day. This gripe or thought leads to others on the same or different themes, which sometimes leads to testimonies and tales of how much better (or worse) things were in "the good old days." Cowboys as a group are very conscious of the real and imaginary history of their trade. Many a man has gone to the West and the buckaroo life in order to live legends. Although buckaroos and ranchers do not volunteer poems, "legends," or "folksongs," there are many such traditional forms of expression in circulation. Once in a while, usually in town, under the right combination of a late evening, good whiskey, juke box, and dancing partners, a fine poem or polished story will be recited about the castration of the mythical Strawberry Roan, or Butch Cassidy's legendary robbery of the First National Bank in Winnemucca. But these occasions are rare.
Buckaroos own no land or house but do own personal property--a car or pickup truck, horsegear, household goods, a "war bag" of personal effects, bedroll, and other things that transport easily. Some own their own horses, which are kept and fed as though they were part of the rancher's cavvy.
Working cowboys have a dwelling, wages, some groceries, and certain benefits according to the deal worked out--fresh beef butchered on the ranch, garden produce, access to the ranch gasoline pump, use of the machine shop, workmen's compensation, and other medical provisions. Most cowboys and other hired hands earn between five and six thousand dollars a year. Buckaroos working for wages often prefer using and maintaining their own saddles, bedrolls, bridles, and horsegear, though every rancher keeps a roomful of extra equipment. There are no set hours, no time clocks. Buckaroos live on the corporate or family ranch, and when the job needs to be done, it gets done. Some of the work ignores "work weeks," since hay harvest and roundup go nonstop. Factory workers in the city who dislike punching time clocks do not complain about the overtime wages those clocks dictate. There is no such thing as "working overtime" on a ranch. After long spans of long work days, though, a kind of compensatory time off can be taken on most ranches. The Fourth of July and Labor Day are traditional days off. Buckaroos are expected to take orders from and work side by side with the rancher and his family. Though they often buck authority, what they hate is not so much the issuance of labor commands as the way those instructions are sometimes given. It is not unlike the functioning of a small military unit, except here the troops can, and do, "up and quit" when things feel wrong. Buckaroos used to try to save up their earnings, hoping in some cases to make a payment on a small ranch of their own. But the economic conditions today, taken with the uncertainties of BLM management policies, means it is virtually impossible for a young man to make it--especially a family man. Not only would start-up require vast amounts of money and resources, but the available land is tied up. Most ranches are passed on within families or from family to family, or they are instantly bought up by established ranchers or a corporation or developer. So, like an able seaman who can never pilot his own ship, a buckaroo is unable to gain sufficient power and capital to run his own ranch. It may have always been that way in Nevada, because since the first phase of settlement the region has been almost entirely controlled by a few large corporations, several dozen families, and the United States Government.
The relationship between rancher and buckaroo is based on a traditional code of mutual trust, respect, and the essential honor in doing a good day's work for a good day's wages. Buckaroos are more likely to feel loyalty to the family ranch than to a large corporation owned by outsiders. Similarly, family ranchers are likely to be loyal to good hands. Honest, self-reliant buckaroos hold the entire industry together.
Many buckaroos lead the life because it is an alternative to what they know and want to leave behind. In this way, it is still the Real West, a mix of romantic belief and cold fact. This supposed escape from civilization that smacks of strength and freedom is an essential part of the appeal of the cowboy image and life-to them as well as to us. They are self-conscious players in the drama of the dusty, tough cattle business. The cowboy life stands for vigorous human liberty. At the same time, as one aging cowhand with back trouble said over and over again, the cowboy life is the dumps. A sense of exile links many working cowboys, as does a sense of quest and adventure. In various individual ways they have rejected or found uncomfortable other trades and professions. But though they are often noncomformists, most conform very strictly to their own community's expectations and customary legal system.
Some buckaroos are married, and some are not. Most working cowboys in earlier times were single, but today the number of married versus single men is about evenly split. The life is not conducive to raising families, and the buckaroo's rowdy ways and legendary flight from domesticity work against family life. There are some married buckaroos, however, who share a small house or mobile home with wife and children on their employer's ranch. In the future, there may be more such families on ranches, since there is a serious shortage of good hands, and ranch owners are increasingly willing to provide a home and benefits for a whole family in order to retain the services of proper laborers. Buckaroos with families tend to be more reliable employees and to stay longer. Single buckaroos live up to their famous penchant for moving on from time to time on impulse, after a quarrel with the boss, or in search of better wages.
Buckaroos tend not to be acquisitive or materialistic. Beyond a fine saddle (made by Ken Tipton in Winnemucca or at Capriola's in Elko) and good horse gear, some special possessions packed in a bed roll or war bag, and some household goods, no personal wealth will result from this work. Some of the men are mightily against the amassing of material things, which would be a hindrance to their self-reliant itinerant habits.
Is this a life of freedom? No--and yes. Buckaroos are trapped by wages, the environment, the nature of the labor, and the will of the current foreman. They are freed by the ability to choose where they work and what they do for a living. That kind of freedom attracts men to the work and serves as the core of the myth still sustaining the occupation. The years after the Civil War when the range cattle industry flourished saw the evolution of this cowboy trade and the simultaneous evolution of the glorified cowboy image. The symbols at the center of the myth do, after all, represent truth: buckaroos do have a kind of freedom, they do tend to be responsible though quixotic workers, they are surely rugged individualists, and their job provides them with a proximity to nature.