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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