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The Real Deal on a Real Ranch

Learning the ropes from an old, stooped-over cowboy who would leave Roy Rogers in the dust

When I was 23, I got a job on a cattle ranch and thought that made me a cowboy. Like a lot of boys of that era raised in the city (Houston, in my case), I had a romantic vision of cowboying that was perhaps a bit in conflict with reality.

Cowboys to me had always been the characters I saw on TV every Saturday. Like Roy Rogers—the ultimate cowboy hero. He could ride and rope and shoot while remaining immaculately attired as he galloped over the plains on his trick horse Trigger, “The Golden Palomino.” Plus, with all that expensive tack on his saddle, he sparkled. Roy Rogers was the Real Deal.

Oh, sure … I knew that perhaps I wouldn’t be tracking down outlaws. But little details like this didn’t really penetrate as I contemplated my new career. All I knew was that I was a cowboy on the Llano Estacado, hundreds of miles from the concrete jungle, visions of golden palominos dancing in my head.

So I was somewhat let down to discover that I was not to be allowed on a horse. None of the new hands got anywhere near a horse. Horses were ridden exclusively by Ranch Boss Jerry and Top Hand Jeff. The rest of us were to spend our time shoveling out cow pens.

The ranch was a modest operation that ran about 200 head of Hereford cattle. Back in the golden era of cattle ranching, it had been a much grander spread, but recessions and droughts had forced the owners to sell off land and stock. Now they had been reduced to employing minimum-wage hands like me just to make ends meet.

With my romantic vision of cowboys now modified, I learned the main ingredients of cowboy life: hay, wire and cow poop.

First, the hay. I had no idea that so much time had to be spent growing, cutting, baling, storing, stacking and distributing hay. I soon become an expert on all things hay. It’s dirty, it’s sticky, and it cuts up your forearms if you don’t wear long shirtsleeves.

The wire is of the barbed variety. I become intimately acquainted with spools of it. It’s dirty, it’s sticky, and it cuts up your forearms if you don’t wear long shirtsleeves.

Do I really have to explain the cow poop?

Every once in awhile, we get a visit from the ranch owner, Cecil. He’s a crusty old guy, about 70, and has a bad back. When he walks, he kind of stoops forward at the waist. He has to thrust his chin up under his Stetson so he can see where he’s going. Sometimes, after one of my forays to the nether regions of the ranch in my never-ending quest for new places to string wire, Cecil will ask me about cows. Specific cows.

Cecil: “Did you see that little heifer with the crooked tail up there today?

Me: “Well, sir, there were some cows up there all right, but I’m not sure I saw that particular one.”

Cecil: “Well, how about that big one with the white feet?”

Me (casting about fruitlessly in my memory): “Well, sir, that one may have been up there, but I didn’t get that close a look.”

I finally realize that Cecil knows every cow on the ranch personally. He is disappointed that I can’t seem to tell one critter from another.

The other hands and I laugh behind Cecil’s back. With his bent posture, thrusting chin and obsession with his cows, we find him a comical figure.

One crisp spring morning, we are all assembled in one of the big corrals where we have collected the young stock for doctoring. Some kind of parasite gets into their ears if you don’t treat them. The new hands like me are a little confused about procedure. How are we supposed to catch all these 30-odd head? These bad boys are a little big for a calf scramble.

Ranch Boss Jerry and Top Hand Jeff just lean against the fence, waiting.

Finally, a truck drives up. It’s Cecil. Painfully, he climbs out of the truck and hunches over, carrying a lasso. He walks to the middle of the corral.

“OK, start runnin’ ’em,” he directs us.

We hands obediently start chasing the cattle to and fro across the corral. Whenever one gets within 50 feet of Cecil, a miraculous thing happens. That bent-up old man flips the lasso, and the loop snakes out and catches the animal around the neck. He then hands the rope to one of us: “You pull him in. My back hurts.”

So we grab the lariat and hold the tugging animal while Jeff and Jerry swab purple medicine inside its ears. Then we go chase another dogie that doesn’t have purple ears yet.

We don’t have to be precise. All we have to do is get the cow within 50 feet of Cecil. He never misses. I mean not once. We chase 30 or so head toward him, and Cecil flips that lasso and catches his animal every time. We are in awe. How does a 70-something-year-old man who can’t even stand up straight catch every cow he aims at perfectly around the neck without even missing once?

A job we thought would take all day is over in an hour. Cecil ambles back to his truck, gets in and drives away in a cloud of dust. As I help pack up, I ask Top Hand Jeff about it: “How does he do it? That was an amazing display of roping excellence! The old geezer can barely stand up!”

I struggle for comparisons: “He’s like Roy Rogers!”

Top Hand Jeff laughs: “Roy Rogers is a TV cowboy. Cecil is the Real Deal.”

I guess he is. Even if he doesn’t sparkle.

Actor and writer Marco Perella lives in Austin.