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"Bunkies"




Everyone thinks that the life of the old-time cowboy must 
have been glorious and free wheeling. Nothing could be 
farther from the truth. Most cowhands were lost and 
lonesome men who had no one waiting for them and nowhere 
to go. Their lives were monotonous, thankless and quite
 often a painful existence punctuated with danger.

Many of the cowboys originally came north with cattle 
herds coming up from Texas. They found a way of making 
some semblance of a living from the hurricane deck of
a cow pony, and had no desire to return to being a 
clerk in some store or walking behind a mule plowing 
up the ground and scattering seeds. 
"If they couldnít do it on a horse, 
it wasnít fittiní work.
 
ĎSides, them cowboy boots with them pointy toes 
wasnít fit to walk in."
 
They stayed in the country where the big cattle herds 
roamed across the prairie states and did the dirty work 
of the cattle industry and tried to convince themselves 
that they were something special. Their work required 
them to be outdoors no matter what the weather conditions 
and the conditions were often pretty bad.
 
In the early days they might be required to spend months 
sleeping on the ground and cooking over a campfire. They 
ranged the territory looking for, rounding up and sorting 
the cattle belonging to some Englishman whom they never
saw if he even lived in the region.
 
After the winter of 1887 and the terrible death losses of 
the cattle on the open range, the Cattle Barons never 
recovered and a new system of ranching began to take hold. 

Smaller outfits appeared. The owners and managers lived on 
the land and began to take better care of the cattle. 
 
Homesteaders and ranchers alike began to build barbed-wire 
fences to prevent the cattle from wandering all over the 
range. For the first few years until cattle became 
accustomed to being confined by fences cows, horses and 
even men were known to die on that "damned wire".

These smaller ranches, many of which still exist today, 
were labor intensive until the advent of much of the 
machinery used today; it was cowhands who carried the 
burden. No longer were they the imagined free spirits 
of the prairie, dashing across the range on a wild 
mustang. Now they were more likely tied to a team of 
horses and a wagon carrying posts and wire and building 
mile after mile of fence. 
 
Then they would find themselves behind a team bringing in 
hay to store to feed in the winter time. 
Then when winter arrived, they were behind a team of 
horses on a hay sled, dispensing the hay to hungry 
cattle in a blizzard. 
None of this is what they had dreamed of as young boys.
 
There were smaller groups of hands now and doing what 
they considered to be menial labor for poor pay and 
worse living conditions.
 
Most of the ranchers provided a place for the cowboys 
to stay. It was called a bunkhouse.
 
The rancher had a house which housed his family and was 
the headquarters of the outfit.
 
It could range from a primitive log or clapboard house 
with the bare essentials, to a palatial multi-storied 
palace depending on the success and tastes of the owner. 
 
The big house might also serve as a cook house, and the 
ownerís wife cooked meals for the hands. Most times the 
cook was another cowhand who had demonstrated a recognition
of different types of food, or was too old or crippled up 
to ride any more and was appointed cook. 
 
On some ranches there might be a married couple, 
the man a cowhand and his wife the cook, and they 
might have a small house in which they were allowed
to live and which had what passed for a dining room 
where the hands got their 3 squares a day.
 
Other outfits required the cowhands to take turns 
with the cooking and often there was one feller that 
demonstrated more talent than the others 
and he became the cook. 
 
It is an unwritten law in bunkhouses and cook houses, 
if you gripe about the cookiní you get to do the cookin.í
 
This led to many cases of hands that were tired of cooking 
resorting to dreadful measures of trying to make the food 
so bad that someone would gripe about it. Many a horrible 
meal was choked down with no comment by men who knew they 
would be cooking tomorrow if they even said a word.
 
By this time job opportunities were scarce and in many 
cases cowboys worked for a place to stay and meals, 
particularly in the winter time. Many hands resorted 
to riding the "grub line."
 
No rancher at that time would ever consider turning 
someone away from his door, if the man was hungry. 
They would share what they had, no matter how meager 
the fare might be. By the same token, it was an 
unwritten law that cowhands werenít beggars and were 
determined to do something in return for the generosity. 
They would stay and work until it was obvious that they 
were not needed, or wanted and then they would drift on 
down the trail to the next ranch.
 
Thus there was for a while a glut of cheap labor, and this 
is true even today. A cowhandís wages are seldom enough 
for him to save a dollar from one pay day to the next.
 
Men who worked the range under these conditions lived 
solitary and lonesome lives. Many had fled from homes, 
wives or the law, and manners dictated that you didnít 
pry into another manís life. Two men could live in a 
bunkhouse for over a year and never know the other manís 
last name. The work they did made their very lives 
dependent upon the trust and skill of the other, but 
they never discussed anything of a private nature. 
 
Cowboys are notorious for being able to consolidate 
an entire conversation into Yup or Nope. 
They are a pretty taciturn bunch.
 
A man could ride into a ranch and the boss would hire 
him and send him to the bunkhouse. Often times there 
would be someone there he had worked with years back. 
He would be told, "Take that bunk over there in the 
corner. That was Jakeís. A horse fell with him last
week and crushed his chest."
The new man might say, "Damn, I bunked with Jake 
in Ď92. Thatís too bad."
 
If he had bunked with Jake, well then he was probably 
a pretty good feller and was accepted into the fold 
without further ceremony or fuss. By the same token 
when the feller felt the need to move on and see what 
was over the hill, and he always did, no questions 
were asked and no comment was made.
 
The population in a bunkhouse was always changing. 
They understood how it was, and that they would 
someday have to follow. No matter how well he was
treated and how well he liked the "brand" he was 
riding for, the day would come when his feet would 
start itching and he would have to 
move on down the trail.
 
One day he would ask the boss for whatever pay he 
had coming, and the boss would just nod and go get 
the money to pay him off. The boss would say 
something like, "Well, Iggy you know the latch
string is always out if you come back this way", 
and offer his hand.. The cowboy would shake his hand
and then make a speech that declared his feelinís 
best he could. "Yup!" and walk back to the bunkhouse.
 
On the day he was to leave he would tie his bedroll 
on his horse and maybe shake a hand or two.
 
There would be a momentís silence and he would say, 
"Well, I reckon....." and one of his friends there
in the bunkhouse would reply, "Yup. See ya down the 
trail mebbe." As he mounted and turned to ride away 
another might offer, "Adios, Amigo" not even knowing 
that he had just offered up another cowboy contraction 
of the old Spanish prayer, Vaya con Dios, Amigo.
 
Go with God my friend.
 
Sad to say there are still enough young men in the west 
that so desire to be a cowboy that they will work for far 
less than their due. This situation also leads to them 
living in bunkhouses much as there predecessors did, and 
thinking that they are living a wonderful existence. 
 
During the spring of the year, they get to play cowboy 
to some extent. There was rounding up and calving and 
branding, etc.; all the things that the old hands told 
stories about. These jobs, too, were truly hard work.
 
Take branding for example. The cows and calves would be 
rounded up and put in corrals. Then the calves would be 
sorted off of the cows and put into a holding corral. 
A cowhand on horse back would ride in among the calves 
and "heel" one. That is catch it by the hind legs with 
his rope and then he would drag it out into the branding 
corral where a team of cowhands called "Wrasslers" would 
literally wrestle it to the ground and hold it while it 
was branded, vaccinated, earmarked and castrated. 
Now this is a matter of skill, timing and sheer guts. 
 
If either of the team misses his grab at a pair of 
flying hooves, his partner is likely to get the hell 
kicked out of him. It is only a matter of time until 
it happens. It is no oneís fault and no one is blamed 
when it happens. It is just part of the job.
 
At the end of the day the cowhands with battered 
knuckles and arms that feel 5 feet long and weighing
50 pounds apiece, and bruises from flying hooves all 
over their bodies, slowly limp back to the bunkhouse.
 
They sit on their beds and take off their boots and 
gingerly poke at baseball size knots on legs and ribs. 
They know that in the morning they are gonna hurt so 
bad, that for about the first 50 feet they will hobble 
along like old men.
 
They look at each other and grin in mutual sympathy, 
but nothing is ever said. They have all been there
before and know what the other is going through, but 
pride prevents any comment. It is just understood, 
and nothing needs to be said.
 
A bunkhouse is a dormitory for bachelor cowboys and 
if they are lucky the place might be liveable.
 
Most consist of one or more rooms with bunk beds or 
maybe single beds with mattresses that died before 
the depression. If the hands are lucky, the boss 
fumigates the place every spring to rid the place
of bed bugs and "no see-umís" that always seem to 
find their way into a place like that.
 
Most of the cowhands that worked for us when I was 
a kid were one step above the homeless men who wander 
the streets today. They were looking for something, 
they didnít know what, or were fleeing from someone 
or something. Many had problems with alcohol. They 
would last for several months to a year and save 
their wages, and then blow it all on a binge in town. 
 
They might wind up in jail for drunk and disorderly 
conduct. My dad would pay their bail and take it out 
of their future wages until it was paid off.
They would come back from town and work for another 
year and then do it again.
 
Then one day they would just show up at the house and 
ask for their pay. It was time to be moving on. You 
didnít ask them any questions as their privacy was all 
that they possessed and you had to respect that. 
 
Today bunkhouses probably have running water and 
electricity. When I was a kid, we got electricity 
in 1949 and when I left the ranch in 61 there was 
electricity, but no running water in the bunkhouse. 
There a coal stove in the center of the room for 
heat, and a water bucket and dipper for drinking 
water near the door. 
Often in the morning the water was frozen.
 
They had built a new cookhouse and there was an 
bathroom and shower in the basement for the hands, 
but it was a 75 yard walk to the crapper even then.
 
Not long after I left, mechanization struck the ranch 
and they no longer had the need for hired hands and 
the bunkhouse was no longer needed 
and is now a storage shed.

 When I was growing up, I had the opportunity to work 
with many of the ranch hands that lived in the bunkhouse 
and got to know and admire more than just a few. 
 
There was Jim Darnell, a learned man with a thirst 
to read everything on the place and a thirst for
bourbon that was worse. He had a college education 
and had been all over the world on oil drilling rigs,
and I learned a lot from him. There was Eppie, who 
had been a medic in the army and kept my Dad from 
bleeding to death in a windmill accident. 
 
Frank Sinon was another. He was the last of the real
cowboys from the bygone days. He rode with Tom Horn. 
Tom is the one that helped catch Geronimo.
Frank knew the truth about Tom, and so do I. I have 
talked to the family of the boys that shot Willie. 
 
It donít matter whether you believe they hanged Tom 
or someone else that day. They hanged an innocent man, 
but thatís another story.
 I got the beginning of my education about the human 
race and the wide, wide world from the men in the
bunkhouse. I owe them a lot for my insight into the 
human mind and I miss their stories, wisdom and humor. 
Most of all, I miss their company.
 
The bunkhouse is gone now and so are all the "Bunkies." 
They have all ridden on down the trail, and I suspect 
that they have all passed over the Great Divide. 
Maybe I will have the privilege of riding some trails 
with them again someday.
 
Wherever you are Bunky, Adios Amigo!
         

 

 

© 2003 Chip Harding



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7/31/07