Fall 2002
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100 years of the Skiff
Challenge of the century
Eyes of the world
9-11 and the media
Alma Matters
Memīries Sweet
Riff Ram
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Back Cover
Back Issues

TCU Magazine "Purpectives"

Cowgirl Up

One reluctant ranch hand got more than she expected from spring roundup.

By Lizzie Means

Just because I am permitted to and capable of doing the same work as the men on this ranch, I thought to myself, does not mean I want to or should feel obligated to do so. Shivering, I shoved my legs through a pair of old Wranglers and contemplated the reasons for my having to be here. Shouldn't we draw the line somewhere? I mean really, what girl should have to endure this kind of manual labor?

I shook as I brought one foot and then the other out from under my canvas bedroll, taking care to avoid agitating the tender blisters my boots rubbed on my heels the day before. Surely this is a man's work. I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be doing this.

The sound of a spoon beating on a tin can pierced the early-morning silence. Frustrated, I rolled my eyes and crawled out of my tipi into the still, cool Texas morning.

I walked the 20 yards from my tipi to the camp. The bunkhouse was still; the cowboys had probably been up for some time. The campfire was slowly burning, and our cook stood at the chuck wagon kneading a batch of fresh dough. I reached the campfire just as the morning's first pot of coffee was pulled from the glowing coals. I poured one for myself and sat on a warm log close to the fire. Tired and achy from yesterday's work, I sipped the steaming coffee and let myself drift in and out of consciousness, hypnotized by the bright colors of the cooling coals.

My father, the "patron" or the boss, owns the ranch and oversees everything. He truly thrives on it -- the ranch is his love. The ranch has been in my family for more than 100 years. It is part of my heritage. I've lived on the ranch all of my life. When I was a junior in high school, my parents insisted I leave the small, west Texas town of Van Horn and go to boarding school so that I might "be presented with more opportunities, and acquire an education that would efficiently prepare me for college," as they so eloquently put it. Consequently, I left home at 16 with an anxiousness to live the "big city" life, and a readiness to be "independent." Now I was home for spring vacation after my first year away. As an independent prep school girl, I was less than thrilled about spending my break helping brand cattle rather than basking in the sun on the beach of Port Aransas with the rest of my schoolmates. I was frustrated and bitter and had done a good job of making sure my dad knew it.

"Lizzie," he had said, "you will come home with all the rest of the college kids who help at this time of year. It is a crucial time. It demands the most work, and we need the most help. As my daughter and the heir to this ranch, you will be home for the spring work."

His tired and discouraged tone of voice and the visible hurt in his eyes pained me. However, my stubborn pride would not allow me to change my attitude and make the work easier or more enjoyable for anyone. I took the last swig of coffee and placed my mug -- a tin can -- in the wash basin near the chuck wagon. Turning, I walked slowly toward the bunk-house to use the bathroom and sink before the cowboys came in to wash for breakfast.

I walked into the small bathroom, struggling to untie my dirty rubber band and let my hair down. The smell of dirt, combined with sweat and campfire smoke, took me aback. Uhhhh! I thought as I splashed cold water on my face and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I stared back at my reflection and felt disgust sweep through my body. I was disappointed with my selfish attitude, ashamed of my ungrateful disposition. I pulled my greasy hair back as best I could in a braid and turned to leave the bathroom.

Catch, drag, struggle, the stench of burning hair, release. Catch, drag, struggle, stench, release. I stood in the center of the pens and waited for each calf to be dragged to the fire. I was in charge of vaccinations. I had two syringes, one in each hand. As soon as a calf was brought to the fire and flanked, I was to give him two shots: one in the hip, one in the shoulder. I worked around the cowboys, dodging hot branding irons and sharp knives, trying my best to avoid seeing the blood that generously spilled upon my father's rough hands with each castration. I was dripping sweat.

Ropes flew, horses dragged and cowboys yelped. The dust was thick and the temperature high. The pens were alive with the roar of the iron's fire, the bawl of the calves and the awful smell of burnt calf hide. My hands throbbed from squeezing, over and over again, syringes meant for the larger hands of a man. My back ached from bending over each calf, and dirt combined with smoke lined my lungs, making it hurt to swallow. I pulled a bandanna up around my face to avoid the dust, but it only made it stuffy and more difficult to breathe.

Soon my father called a break, and the roping cowboys dismounted their horses and joined us over at the pickup trucks for a drink of water and a fresh pinch of tobacco. They laughed and teased each other, poking fun at how fat David had trouble getting onto his horse, or how skinny Artamio could never catch a woman. How can they appear to be enjoying this? I asked myself. How can they possibly find entertainment and fun in circumstances such as these? I leaned up against a trailer in the shade and stood their alone nursing my dry throat with a cold Dr Pepper. The cool tin can came as relief to the tender callouses the syringes had worn on my skin. My hands were beet red, and my usually manicured fingernails were chipped and broken, with dirt and manure packed under them. I scowled thinking of the harsh nature of this work.

Suddenly, I was aware of a truck pulling up to the pens. The truck rattled down the dirt road and came to an abrupt halt, causing the fog of dust to worsen. As the dirt dispersed, Alejandro opened the door and used the handles to cautiously lower himself from his large pickup. Alejandro Hinojos had worked on the ranch for my family for decades. Everyone loved him and admired him, especially my father.

He once had a body sculpted by years of manual labor. In my childhood and early youth, he would hold his arm straight out while I, an 85 pound baboon of sorts, wrapped my legs around it and swung upside down. He was kind and wise, good and honest, and I had many fond memories of him. His presence demanded attention, and he spoke so seldom that when he did, everyone was sure to listen.

Since retirement, his belly had begun to soften and spill over his belt. His skin was a deep brown, darkened by the many days of labor in the sun. His hands, which I remember most, were rough and worn, yet steady. Even in his late 70s, his wit was sharp and his reactions fast. He often counseled my father, having had many more years, even worlds of experience, in not only the ranching and cattle business, but in matters of life.

Taking care not to overexert his tired body, Ale walked toward the group of cowboys and greeted everyone. As always, he stepped over next to my dad and asked how everything was running. Nodding at the man who had taken the place of his own father, Dad took Ale's arm and guided him over away from the group of rowdy cowboys. I finished my Dr Pepper, observing the men from afar, still unwilling to join them or be the least bit social. At a distance, over in the shade of a cottonwood tree, my father and Ale engaged in what appeared to be an intimate conversation. Dad talked earnestly while Ale, propped against the tree, listened intently. I assumed their conversation had to do with the calf crop this year, the condition of the cattle or possibly the lack of rain.

I lay on my back, counting the stars in the night above me -- 81, 82. The sounds and voices from the camp drifted toward me. Eighty-three -- a cuss word in Spanish, the continuous serenade of a cricket. Eighty-four, 85 -- the smell of brewing coffee just feet away, the lull of a guitar.

"Liz?" Ale's raspy, gentle voice interrupted my thoughts.Startled, I sat up.

"I didn't mean to frighten you," he said. I assured him he hadn't, and he sat down next to me.

"You okay?" I glanced up at him and quickly looked away.

"Your dad's hurt by the way you've acted while on the round-up." I lowered my head, embarrassed by both the confrontation and by my behavior.

"I know about being young. I know about the longing for independence and freedom that comes with youth. However, I also know the importance of one's roots and one's heritage. It is essential not only to maintain these things and incorporate them in your life, but it is also necessary that you take pride in them, recognizing that they have molded who you are."

I stared into the night. It was dark and still, seemingly endless.

"I wish you were more willing to accept who you are and where you come from. I wish you were receptive of the idea that you are obligated to give back, even if it does mean sacrificing spring break to work a little. Your father asks little of you, and you've been blessed with tremendous opportunity. Please try harder to develop a better attitude about this, your job, duty and responsibility. I can see why, right now, the ranch holds little of your interest. However, it will come to you someday, a love for this land and an appreciation for your roots. You will realize it, and feel for it as deeply as the rest of us do."

Without any discussion, Ale got up and walked back toward the camp, leaving me alone with my thoughts and the sound of the cottonwood trees aroused by a rushing wind.

I watched him go, then fell back onto my elbows and stared up into the blackness, amazed by how many stars a west Texas sky could hold. Beautiful. I lowered my gaze to the skyline and traced the curves and jolts of a mountain's peak. Breathtaking. At the foot of the mountain, prairie land stretched on for miles and miles. The prairie grasses were bent down by the force of a constant breeze. It appeared almost as if they were bowing to pay homage to the majesty of their surroundings. A wind swept through, blowing the hair back from my face. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and exhaled slowly.

Ale's words echoed in my head. He was right. I did love this land. I couldn't avoid the love, or pretend it didn't exist. It was a part of me, and I was forced to recognize I had an obligation not only to the ranch, but to my family as well. Lowering my head, I put my face in my hands. They ached and burned; however, new skin was beginning to cover the callouses, and my blisters were beginning to heal. I opened my eyes and surveyed them.

I couldn't help but grin. Amazing, the amount of dirt and grime that can pack under fingernails.

Lizzie Means, a marketing junior, hails from the Moon Ranch in Van Horn. She's contemplating graduate school and plans to hone her Spanish while living abroad after graduation.