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by Clint Eastwood

Book Introduction
by Gretel Erhlich

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Introduction by Gretel Ehrlich

THE COWBOY

His day starts at three-thirty or four a.m. as wind sweeps down from a snow-corniced ridge and blades night from between clumps of sage. He sits on the edge of his bed, head bent down into his hands, then pulls on his boots, fastens his spurs, and walks out into the day. Mare's tails — thin strings of clouds — comb the air. The ground is all frost tinctured purple and tangerine. Dust rises from the plain: the remuda is coming, fifty or sixty head of horses.

The cowboy stands among them whirling a back-handed hoolihan loop that sails though the air and comes down on a dun gelding's neck, then a sorrel's, then a roan's, until all the horses needed for that day have been caught.

He saddles his own mount quietly, smoothing the wool pads, then easing the heavy saddle across the horse's back, lifting the front of the gullet and setting it back down, snug on the withers as the horse shakes with anticipation and cold. Warming the snaffle bit in his rough hands, he puts on the bridle. Then the cowboy leads his mount out from the others, pulls its long head slightly to the left, and steps on.

Darkness drains from the sky as horse and rider move at a hard trot across the range. Each step breaks branches of sage, sending a musty, green scent into the air. It takes two hours to get to the cattle. The horse pumps white fans of breath from flared nostrils and his hooves pound on the half-frozen ground — there is just a smear of mud on top to make him slide. The cowboy's fingers go numb and water seeps from his eyes. He thinks about the calf he's been doctoring for pneumonia and wonders if it made it through the night. He puts his hand back and touches the saddlebag. Yes, it is there, the bulge of the syringe and the penicillin bottle. He can tell if a cow or calf is sick, thirsty, or lame from a quarter mile away because he thinks like a cow, can feel the discomforts of their bodies, and understands their grunts, bellows, and sighs when he is with them. That's because he has spent his life looking at animals, water, grass, and weather, but mostly animals, which is why he also knows what makes humans tick, though he'd prefer not to. The elk-deer-sage-grass-horse-dog-cow-crane community is enough for him.

Weather is not something apart from the cowboy. He ingests it and it ingests him; it enters through openings, through the pores on his head, and under his hatband where sweat is exchanged for snowfall. Sleet, thundershowers, hail, snow, and hot sun wash his thoughts, and wind alters the way he holds his body. Physical pain does the rest, bowing and bending legs, back, mind.

Far ahead he sees the cattle. Sun flashes behind the rim of a hill then lifts up throwing shadows everywhere on the ground like black sticks. The mixed scents of sage, wild rose, and sweet creek water fill the air. Cottonwoods shake their leaves like silver coins at first light.

He rides slowly through the herd. The sick calf stands up, stretching his neck then his long back. The cowboy throws a loop over the animal's head, ties the end of the lariat hard and fast to his saddle horn, dismounts, and quickly fills the syringe. Twenty-two cc's ought to do it. Grabbing flank and shoulder hair, he lays the calf on its side, gives the shot, pulls the hondo, loosens the loop, and lets the calf go.

At the river he crosses where the water is not too deep. The horse lowers its head and drinks, its lips floating and breaking the surface as waterbugs skate over the shivering images of mountains. The fence wire that the cowboy found broken on the other side of the ridge needs mending, and some strays that had gotten in are pushed back into their own pasture, and after that he rides south seven miles to check more cattle. Later, he waters his horse at a pond. From behind tall reeds, two sandhill cranes swoosh up, hissing at the intruders. The horse jumps back and whirls as the birds rise, their red foreheads like headlamps burning a path into night, their haunting calls "garrrroooo, garrrroooo" reminding the cowboy that they are mated for life and he is alone.

Sometimes he is still moving cattle when night falls. Nighthawks whirl and the smell of freshly trodden earth shows the horse, dog, and rider the way home. He wears his hat pulled low, and a heavy jacket with the collar turned up. Going home on a tired horse, the rider engages some inward gear near neutral — head down, feet quiet in the stirrups, hands resting on the pommel. He half dozes, then wakes as a late rain shower beats into his face. He unties his long yellow slicker from the back of his saddle and puts it on, tucking it around his chaps, hoping the horse won't spook. As the rain comes on hard, water seeps in everywhere. A thin stream from the brim of his hat beads down between his legs onto the saddle. The toes of his boots get soaked, his rein-holding hand is cold, his cheeks are wet. As he crosses a road someone stops and gives him coffee from a thermos. He holds the plastic cup with both gloved hands and inhales the warm steam, drinks, then continues on.

At dusk the sky clears. It is an enormous room through which he moves. Rafts of black clouds lie on the horizon and the air turns frigid. A lopsided moon rises. Violet gauze powders the air. The cowboy rides through the ranch gate with a polished ease, speaking gently to his horse — a promise of oats when they reach home.

A cowboy's day is long, the pay is bad, and the weather merciless. Every part of the cowboy's "uniform" is necessary protection: tall boots protect from saddlesores and rattlesnake bites, the high-stacked heel keeps the foot from pushing all the way through the stirrup if a horse bucks or runs away or falls. Jeans and shirt, vest and jacket are all worn tight: loose clothing can get caught in dallies, ropes, and reins. Chaps — from the word "chaparral," a thick brush that grows on the coastal mountains of California — protect the legs from just that: brush, as well as cactus, barbed wire, hay, knives, and sharp hooves. The cowboy hat, steamed into a variety of shapes depending on personal as well as geographical style, protects the rider from sunstroke, hail, sleet, rain, and snow, but is useless in high winds. That's when the neckscarf comes in handy: it's used like a bonnet string, inelegantly tied over the top of the hat and under the chin to hold the hat on. It also holds in body heat and doubles as a mask in dusty corrals.

Most of the equipment a cowboy uses originated with the Spaniards: spurs, chaps, bits, bridles, ropes, and saddles. Some of it is hard on the horse, such as the spade bit, but most of the tack is simply functional. Spurs are not instruments of torture, but rather can be used lightly to telegraph precise instructions: turn to the left, or the right, or go on ahead quickly. They are the brake pedal and steering wheel combined. Ropes — reatas or lariats — are made of braided rawhide or stretched nylon, and come in varying widths and lengths. Saddles come in different sizes and shapes. The wooden base, called a "tree," on which the leather is stretched, has high, low, or rolled cantles, a flat-topped or round-topped horn, oxbow or wide stirrups. A perfect fit is imperative: a saddle is a cowboy's home.

In Western vernacular the word "cowboy" can be used as either a noun or a verb. The work a cowboy does is called "cowboying." In northern California, Nevada, southern Idaho, and eastern Oregon, cowboys are called buckaroos. Ranches everywhere are called "outfits," as are pickup trucks, a cowboy's horse, saddle, dog, and rifle. A saddle is sometimes called a "wood."

A cowboy, distinct from a rancher, is someone who hires out to a rancher for day work, or for a season, or for a lifetime if he cares to. Cowboys often move from ranch to ranch. Or they get mad, tired, and grouchy, quit, go to town, spend their month's pay, then hire back on to the same outfit. If necessary the big ranches supply horses, a rifle, a working dog, and a saddle. If he stays long enough with the same ranch a cowboy will be given a plot in the cemetery, a funeral, and a headstone.

Cowboys are perhaps the most misunderstood group of workers anywhere. Romanticized in the movies and on billboards as handsome, macho loners always heading off into the sunset, they are more likely to be homebodies or social misfits too shy to work with people. Their work has more to do with mothering and nurturing than with exhibitions of virility. A cowboy can bottle-feed a calf around the clock, forecast weather, use a sewing machine, make anything out of canvas or leather, and serve as midwife to any animal. St. Francis-style, it is common for cowboys to befriend wild animals. Pet ravens, skunks, elk, rabbits, deer, bear cubs, coyotes, foxes, feral pigs …. There are stories about all of them.

There are good and bad in every crowd. Plenty of cowboys are mean, squirrelly, neurotic, and willfully ignorant with a chip as big as Alaska on their shoulders, men who beat their horses and dogs into submission, cheat on their bills, and fight anyone at the bar. But many others are hard working, sharp eyed, and dedicated to the land and animals under their care. To be a good hand requires discipline, intelligence, compassion, tenacity, and great amounts of patience. The deficit in financial rewards is taken up by pride in what they do, how they look when doing it, and the excellence of the results. Humor is the grease that keeps them all going. Working long hours in tough situations, the cowboys laugh at themselves, at each other, and at animals. It's said that all cowboys are bilingual: they speak English (or Spanish) and profanity. That's because everything that can go wrong from day to day on a ranch usually does. But the humor comes from another source: humility. The cowboy has been humbled by the harshness of the work and the weather, as well as by the beauty that surrounds him.

Perhaps it is working in the midst of so much physical grandeur that marks the cowboy differently from other working people. Every day he rides out and sees what is there, notices everything: the sharp smell of sage as his horse's forelegs knock the gray stems, the rattle of ice breaking up on a creek at dawn, the nest of the western meadowlark, a face in the clouds, pine pollen sifting yellow over the horse's mane, the glint of sun on willows, a flake of snow alighting on the saddle horn, an owl that follows him through the lodgepole pine forest, an elk bugling at the top of a waterfall, an undulating rainstorm. Beauty bends the cowboy to its rhythms, which is why he is so at home in the physical world, and why he moves with such a natural grace.

There's an economy to the way he speaks. Gruff diction mimics harsh weather. The demands of the land sharpen his eye and his intelligence, and the needs of the animals engender gentleness. He might be shy with people but must be a willing and skillful mother, doctor, steward, and nurse to thousands of animals who occupy his mind as he rides a twenty-, thirty-, or forty-mile circle in a single day.

Once I heard a cowboy say, "When you look at this mare you're looking at a Cadillac. No, better than any damned car. See how smooth and smart and willing she is. She only wants to please, to do her work well. See how she tucks under and stops, turns, backs up, looks at a cow. She's got enough cow in her to turn a thousand head right now. I'd marry her if I could. Well hell, maybe I have."

A good hand doesn't "break" his horse, he and the horse give themselves over to each other so that trust and harmony, not fear and self-preservation, can reign. He rides perfectly balanced in the center of the saddle and the horse moves freely under him. He doesn't jerk on the reins or spur the horse in the shoulder to get it to move or turn. A subtle nudge with the knee while picking up on the reins ever so slightly, or a shift of the pelvis, will do.

A cowboy's horse is required to do many things: to travel long distances, sometimes at high altitudes in a variety of weather and footing; to seek out cattle, sort strays, and pair up cows and calves; to cut out bulls and hold the herd while others do the sorting or doctoring. To go through bogs, climb mountains, endure thunderstorms and severe heat, slip and slide in rain and ice storms, dodge hail, and break trail in deep snow. Long distances must be covered without food or water, children and working dogs have to be tolerated, and the unknown must be faced.

There is hardly such a thing as a bad horse. With very few exceptions, it is the human who is "bad" — that is, unskilled, terrifying, and violent with the animal who, without language, reacts the only way he can, with his bodily power. He might buck, bite, paw, stamp, rear, or fall over: anything to get away from that which he fears could harm him. When you see a cowboy have horse problems day after day, it's easy to guess what's wrong. At most outfits, the horse stays, the cowboy goes.

On a big ranch a cowboy usually has a string of six to twenty "using horses" as he calls them, and there are always a few favorites among them. Sometimes it is the little sorrel mare that has been so difficult to train but who is especially smart, quick, and "cowy" (having an instinct to sort cattle), or else the ugly, Roman-nosed horse who will go a fifty-mile circle any day you ask him and still have enough go for more.

While the myth might posit a cowboy high up in the stars, the reality is that he is just a hired hand who lives close to poverty. Like the horses he chooses as his favorites, he is often society's underdog — a drifter with a hard face carved by wind and loneliness. His working dogs and horses are his closest companions, his trusted friends. They need each other. The work can't be done without them — and they have been through a lot. Like the times lightning showered down all around them, and the crust of snow cut their legs, and a thunderstorm changed the course of a river and swept them downstream until they could clamber out on a slippery bank, and the bog swallowed them, and the blizzard sealed white to the ground and drove cattle ahead of the wind and no one could see. The cowboy talks to his horse and dog with a gentler voice than the one he uses to converse with humans. The tone is soothing, reassuring, amused, sometimes sharp but always fair. Mutual trust is the only road to survival.

Out on the range cowboy etiquette is observed. When working together as they do during spring and fall gathers, riders are polite with each other and chivalrous with women. Such behavior has Southern roots. Many of the cowboys came north from the Southern states with the trail herds after the Civil War, and the mores they have brought with them have not changed over the years. When trailing a herd of cattle, everyone is assigned a position. You can ride point, flank, or drag, and it is considered extremely rude to take over another person's job or cross in front of another rider. If you pass by, you must excuse yourself, then go quickly, so as not to get in the way. Even if things are going wrong, it is best to keep to your position until instructed otherwise.

Cowboys are not always men, but sometimes women. Some foremen say they'd rather hire a woman rider because she'll be kind to the animals and will always get the work done. Regardless, by the time a cowboy gets home — which may be only a line camp, or a crude bunk-house far from town — the Big Dipper is already scooping black from black. A bunkhouse may be a log cabin, an adobe house, a teepee, a tent, an abandoned farmhouse, a trailer, or a sheep wagon. Whatever it is, it's home.

At the end of a long day in the saddle, the cowboy grains his horse, turns him out, feeds the dog, fries up some hamburger and potatoes, drinks spring water from a tin cup, eats, reads a week-old newspaper, and goes to bed.

A cowboy's year is seasonal. Summer's rhythms are as long and slow as the days, and the light is as clear. Sometimes it snows for a day in mid-July, or at the end of June, or in the middle of August, just to remind the cowboy that on northern ranches winter is the dominant season and can always have its way. Then summer begins to fade. Daylight wanes and hard frosts lie on bunch grass — fescue, needle-and-thread, June grass, blue-stemmed wheatgrass. Rust rises in the stems of willows that line the creeks, and yellow leaves patchwork single cottonwood trees. Songbirds flock and vanish. No more western meadowlark operettas, no more robin's evensongs. Migrant shorebirds and ducks crowd the little ponds — Wilson's phalaropes, mallards, cinnamon teal, mergansers, buffleheads. Sandhill cranes circle as if marking out ponds made of air, then go south. Silence falls like snow on the range.

Cattle are moved from pasture to pasture on a timetable that benefits the growth of grass. All summer the animals are pushed higher and higher into the mountains. In September they are eased back down from alpine meadows into wide valleys of sage and grass, and even if the rider never showed up, they would know which day to start the journey and could find their way home. The cowboy understands that herd instinct is not stupidity but another order of intelligence — a hedge against predation, cold, and getting lost.

The work in the fall commences when the cowboys, ranch owners, and friends comb the country and find all the cattle. The gather is worked in a sturdy set of corrals, brands are inspected, strays are sorted out, calves are separated from cows, steers are sorted from heifers, bulls are taken home. It is a social event where cowboys get to show off their best cutting horses and the evening meal is taken communally. Stories from the long and lonely summer are traded with much teasing and laughter because sometimes humor and the company of animals are the only things to keep a cowboy sane: at one camp a grizzly bear kept a cowboy hostage in the outhouse all morning; at another, a rider was found feeding his dog at the dinner table with a silver spoon; at another a lonely horse swam across the river to visit some campers then swam back; and in a freak snowstorm, a longhorned cow broke trail and brought the young calves home.

Fall roundup can last a month or two. When it is finished the cowboy pulls his horses' shoes. He sees that their coats have already begun to thicken, their chin hair begun to grow long and wispy, and little splayed mustaches have formed on their muzzles. The cowboy grains them daily and, when snow begins to cover what remains of sun-cured grass, he feeds the horses a mixture of alfalfa, wild Timothy, and native grass hay.

"When the work is all done in the fall" is a common refrain at this time of year and from late October until Christmas things are slowed almost to a stop on many northern ranches. The cowboy turns his horses out to pasture for a well-earned rest. He oils his saddle, boots, and bridles and listens to the radio as nights grow long and blustery storms bang across the basin and rattle the cabins and barn roofs. The cottonwoods that single-file the streams lose their leaves. The indigo sky grows pale. The cowboy trades in his Stetson for a wool Scotch cap with earflaps.

After the solstice on December 21st, winter lacquers the ground into a white disc and the horizon is all silver splinters. The air smells like granite. Snow is rubble cascading down from towers of scree. Ponds where sandhill cranes and mallards fledged their young and where the cowboy's horse drank in mirrored images have been reduced to silver coins strewn through sage flats. The sun is brilliant but weak and the Big Dipper's cup hangs upside down. At night the cowboy and his working dogs sit close to the wood stove and rub their arthritic joints. Bones that have been broken are barometers of weather. A coming storm makes everything hurt.

In midwinter nothing moves except snow. In the high country snowdrifts mound up into indomitable, never-cresting waves higher than the height of a man on a horse, and far below the lights of a tiny town with its bar, post office, and cafe begin to look welcoming.

Winter months are taken up with the feeding of cattle in the northern Rockies. It's then that the cowboy becomes a teamster — not a union man, but someone who can harness and drive a team of horses pulling haywagons from stackyards to distant pastures where he pushes off flakes of hay like loaves of bread to hungry animals. After, he might spend time in the barn heated by a wood stove mending tack, making a pair of elk-hide chaps, or braiding a new set of rawhide reins for his girlfriend. Dark comes in the afternoon and the moon might be the only face a cowboy sees all night.

When and how spring arrives is always a mystery. Maybe it begins the day that steam rises from the earth when winter holds its breath and the earth's respiration begins again. The old men in town bet on which day the river ice will break up. A western meadowlark returns at the beginning of March, waking winter sleepers with its shrill song. A mallard cases out local lakes. Where ice has melted back from the shore and a cuticle of open water appears, a pair of ducks find sanctuary for a few weeks until the thaw.

Spring equinox is announced by hollow booms — made not by a plane, but by the pond ice breaking and shifting before refreezing again. Snow clouds weaken. Their humped, wind-carved backs flatten out and are swept away by the spring winds.

Sudden heat melts snow. The calves start coming fast. Ranch lights are on all night and cowboys spell each other on the night shift, checking "calvy" cows and heifers every two hours around the clock. Sometimes an emergency Caesarian has to be performed: all hands on deck, cowboys become veterinarians. On a clean bed of straw a cow is laid out, given a local anesthetic, cut open, and a calf — weighing 100 pounds — is pulled up and out of its mother. Mother is sewn up, calf takes its first milk, mother and child survive. When dawn breaks, the cowboy rides through the new calves giving vitamin shots and suckling sickly ones from a bottle. Calves that don't get up fast enough can freeze to the ground. It's not uncommon to see a cowboy driving a pickup truck with a calf in the front seat. He's taking her home to thaw out in his cabin by the wood stove, and will return her to the herd in the afternoon.

The intensity of calving — which hopefully lasts only a month or two — is such that cowboys have been seen breaking down in tears or raging at inanimate objects like tractors and pickup trucks. Clothes are stained with blood and mud. Tempers are fragile. Whatever civility remains is quickly eroded by ferocious twenty-four-hour-a-day winds. It's a time of year when people keep their differences inside and give their all to the health of the herd. Lack of sleep or disturbed sleep is never resented, simply endured as dreams of green grass gain ground.

One day the garrrroooo, garrrroooo of the returning sandhill cranes breaks winter's silence. The ponds' hard silver melts and a green haze of grass begins to appear. Cabin fever subsides. The cowboy shaves his winter beard and cuts his hair. He grooms his horses, thinning the manes and tails. In April branding begins. Cowboys go from ranch to ranch, neighbor helping neighbor. When the work is done, food is laid out and as the branding fires ebb, there is dancing.

After, the cows, calves, and yearlings are turned out. The cowboy ropes out a young horse and climbs on. The horse snorts and crowhops, the cowboy grabs a little mane but nothing bad happens. Together, the horse and cowboy relax. He whoops and hollers and lets the horse lope for awhile. How good it feels to be moving fast. Gates are opened and the herd is taken across the two-lane highway, through another gate out into an empire of lengthening days and ten-thousand-acre pastures of cold-season spring grass. Life on the range begins again.