Saturday, August 9, 2008

Life of a Cowboy



A Cowboy Must Know His Trade as Thoroughly as a Carpenter Knows His — The Danger From Blizzards When Riding the Lines on the Sandy Plains.

By Theodore Roosevelt

Probably every man who has had a ranch in the west has received a multitude of applications from people who wish to get on that ranch. Most easterners seem not to know that a cowboy's business requires special training, and that a hardy, vigorous young follow without any training can no more start in offhand as a cowboy than he could start in offhand as a carpenter. Moreover, a man who isn't a good cowboy is worse than a nuisance, because the average cowboy needs ten horses for his work, and if he doesn't do the work the ten horses are wasted. A man to be proficient in the business must be not only a good horseman, but must be able to rope well, to read brands, to understand cattle and must have a good knowledge of plains-craft. Ordinarily the work does not imply long continued physical exertion, like the work of a woodchopper, but it is often very monotonous, and it is also often fraught with hardship and danger.

Nevertheless, in the spring, summer and early fall the life is a very exciting and pleasant one for those who have mastered the work. There is an attraction in the wild, lonely country, and the entire freedom of an existence spent mostly on horseback. After one gets used to it the rough little shack seems comfortable enough, and for much of the year the ranch wagon is the cow puncher's home. To many a hardy, vigorous fellow the roundup is ordinarily rather a picnic.

The men are fed well, and though they do not have much sleep yet the easiest of all forms of labor is sitting in the saddle, and the long rides in the morning to gather in the cattle and the furious galloping and chasing round the herd when cutting out the beef steers and cows and calves in the afternoon possess a great charm for men fond of vigorous exercise and of life in the open. Of course even in summer there are unpleasant experiences. A stampede at night in a thunderstorm is usually too exciting to be agreeable, and fighting fire is very wearing work, while there is always a liability to misadventure. A man may have now and then to make a dry camp. He may get injured by an unusually vicious horse, or be damaged in the rush of a stampeded herd, or be drowned in the quicksands of some treacherous plains river. Still, take it as a whole, in good weather the life is pleasant enough.

But in the iron winter the work is very hard and very dangerous. The last roundups, which take place in November on the northern plains, are not agreeable. The nights are very long, and the freezing misery of standing guard round a cattle herd does not tend to make them seem shorter. In fine weather nobody wants a tent, but it is not pleasant after a 24 hours' cold rain to toss the damp blankets on the sod ground and creep into them. Of course, the tarpaulin has kept out most of the wet, but it does not keep out all, and then some nights there is a heavy snowfall, and when you throw back the tarpaulin in the morning the snow gets down the back of your neck, and much dexterity is needed while drawing on your boots and trousers not to let the snow get into the blankets. The ground is like iron after the heavy frosts, and though the horses, being worn down and thin, are much less lively and vicious than in spring, yet if they do "act mean" they are more liable to slip and hurt themselves, and more apt to hurt their rider if they throw him.

Early in December the last of the season's work ends. Most of the cowboys are discharged, and they may then go into town, or build a little shack and hunt for a livelihood, or stay around the ranches, doing any odd job that turns up for their board. A few, however, are kept on to ride lines and keep track of the cattle in the snow. Those men must needs be of vigorous constitution and thoroughly able to grapple with every exigency of plains life, for they are certain to have some pretty tough experiences before spring if the winter is at all severe.

In riding lines each man has a definite beat. Of course in good weather the task is a perfectly easy one. The rider lets his pony jog along until he comes to the end of his beat. If any cattle have crossed the line, he sees their tracks, and following rounds them up and drives them back into the country where it is desired they shall range during the winter. If no cattle come near the line, he simply goes to the end of his beat and comes back again, but if a blizzard catches him he may find it an almost impossible task to avoid getting lost. All landmarks are shrouded from sight, and while the blizzard is in its height it is out of the question to make head against it. Of course if the day is a very bad one the rider won't go out at all, but often he has to take his chances, and the snow may begin to fall and the wind to blow just when he is at the farthest point of his beat. Then back he comes over the long stretches of sand colored, lifeless prairie sward as fast as his pony can go. The snow comes first in puffs and little drifts — not the soft flakes of an eastern snowstorm, but fine ice dust, which feels almost like sand when blown against the face. Heavier and heavier blow the gusts, thicker and thicker the snowclouds, and finally the storm moans and shrieks and drives the icy flakes in almost level lines. The rider is then lucky if he can find his camp. Unless he knows exactly where he is, and unless the landmarks are very conspicuous, it is out of the question for him to do so. The only resource is to drift before the storm exactly as the cattle do, until he finally strikes some sheltered place, under the lee of a big rock or in a hollow where there is a bunch of thick timber. Here he will dismount, tie his horse (which shelters itself all that it can, and then stands with drooping head, tail toward the wind), and himself cower down under the horse blankets in the most sheltered spot he can find. There is no small difficulty in lighting a fire, and, indeed, unless the shelter is good, such a feat is impossible. Without any fire, if the cold is at all intense, the man's chances for life are not good, but often the blizzards blow ever almost as quickly as they rise. As a rule, the cow puncher who is very shifty and full of expedients turns up at the home ranch or the line camps a couple of days later, perhaps a little frost bitten, and certainly very hungry and uncomfortable, but not materially the worse for wear.

"Footman" and "Groom"

The extra manservant who is stationed on a carriage beside the coachman is often called by his employer a footman. This, according to the Anglican standard, to which we bow our submissive heads, is a misnomer. He is the groom.

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