This documentary, which was produced in 1976 as part of Bill Moyers Journal, looks at the difficult but rewarding life of cowboys in northwestern Colorado.
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COWBOY #1: Hell, a cowboy primarily makes his living taking care of cattle. But he has to be a good horseman to do that too. He has to be a “vetenary”, he should be a fence builder, he’s got to shoe his horses. He’s got to be able to doctor his horses and he’s got to take care of his equipment, his saddles, his ropes. He has to pull a cow out of a bog, you have to pull calves. You have to doctor cattle for every which way for everything you can think of. Well, he’s get to be tougher n’ hell. There’s people my age, a little older and a little bit younger, dying off. There’s nobody around that will know the life we led. There’s no way. I don’t know as we’re any better off for having lived that type of life. We just have knowledge of our own time. That’s all that you people will have. You’ll have knowledge of a different time. When I was 14… 12 or 14 years old… there was lots of cowboys and bronco riders and wild horse chasers in the country. And there were lots of wild horses.
COWBOY #2: Yeah, yeah. I can remember when we was kids. Dad, he was after us all the time. We’d be out and supposed to be doing something with the cows, you know, why if we’d find a pretty bunch of wild horses, we’d forget all about the cows. We’d be gone a ‘running horses.
COWBOY #1: What I like about the wild horses is the excitement of the chase. You set somewhere in a draw and wait for somebody to bring you some wild horses. When you hear them over that next ridge holler, you think, “Boy, they’re going to come.” Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t, but it still excites you to think… you can just see them there almost. You get ready and tense. It’s… gets in your blood, right.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Here in the Northwestern corner of Colorado among these rocky hills, sage brush flats and dry gulches, I’ve met some people who live about as close to the frontier as you can in the last part of the 20th Century. They’re cowboys. Not the quick drawin’, fast shootin’, guitar strummin’ cowboys of popular literature. These cowboys are people, not legends; and they live in a world of sucking calves, hard weather, lonely winters and cash that’s hard to come by. But they love it. They love the stubborn land, the outdoor work and the horses they still chase and ride. In a world hard-put for simple things, a world uneasy with creatures that are untamed and free, it’s a passing way of life. But there’s a spirit to it worth catching as you’ll see when you meet Monty and Minford.
The land is harsh, immense, and beautiful. It rises in great sandstone buttes 20 miles long and falls in windswept basins a hundred miles across. The land is dry and barren. There’s no water except for the half-hearted rivers, muddy and slow, which begin in the high country far to the east. Along these rivers 100 years ago, the homesteaders came in search of a dream. They wanted land of their own, an endless space around them. But more than that, they wanted a certain kind of freedom, a freedom that has to do with paying a price to live the way they wanted to. For most of them the dream ended- suddenly because they couldn’t stand the shrieking winds, the driving blizzards, the five-year droughts or the awful loneliness which simply closes in. For those who stayed the land shaped and bent them until they were as hard and dry as the earth itself. And almost as unyielding. Monty Sheridan is one of these people. Born in a lonely homestead along the Snake River 42 years ago, he grew up with horses and cattle and the dream his father had. It is Monty’s dream now. His land is where dinosaurs once roamed. It is land where Indians hunted buffalo, and Butch Cassidy once ran from the law. All of it seems to be here even yet in this remote part of the West waiting for time to catch up.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Your cowboy life is just about a thing of the past anymore. There’s a few outfits that use cowboys, but the way they’re getting it set up, why, they got these fences so they don’t have to ride. And when they do gather them, they run out there in a day or two and gather them and ship, and it’s all done for, you know. And there’s just not much demand for cowboys. About the only ones that’s cowboys anymore is some ole broken-down guys that can’t do nothing else, you know. There’s a difference in the cowboys. You’ve got… I mean, you used to have cowboys, but now, heck, they’ve got to run tractors and haying equipment and all that. And that is what’s getting rid of all your cowboys. You know, they can’t just strictly ride and punch cows like they used to. God, I don’t know. It’d be a hell of a note for a cow puncher to be herding sheep, wouldn’t it? But I cowboyed for 13 years straight at one place down there where Minford is.
BILL MOYERS: Minford Beard is Monty’s neighbor and closest friend. Minford was born and raised on the land he now ranches.
MINFORD BEARD: This is where my grand-dad and grandmother on my mother’s side were buried.
BILL MOYERS: Were they homesteaders?
MINFORD BEARD: My grand-dad homesteaded this land we’re on right here. This is my grand-dad’s grave right here: J. C. Mobley.
BILL MOYERS: What kind of folks were your parents?
MINFORD BEARD: They were homesteaders also. My mother was raised here on this ranch.
BILL MOYERS: “Jack Beard and Clifford Beard”. Who were they?
MINFORD BEARD: This was my older brother. He died in 1934…
BILL MOYERS: Why?
MINFORD BEARD: He cut his foot with an ax and got blood poisoning.
BILL MOYERS: And this was another brother?
MINFORD BEARD: This was my younger brother. He died… we was up on that mountain you can see over there in the distance. It’s Calamity Ridge. And we were up there running wild horses, in the winter of 1936. And he got tick fever and we rode off to Rangely to some friends’ place and hauled him around to the doctor. He was… we rode out of there that day, he had a fever of a hundred and four when we got to the doctor. And he lived two days, and died with tick fever.
BILL MOYERS: Not many people still live on the same place their grandparents are buried on.
MINFORD BEARD: Well, I supposed that maybe he picked out this place before he died. I wouldn’t know, you know. It’s not too bad of a place to be buried, I guess.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Well, they’re about the lowest paid men in the country, the cowboy is. Hell, the cow prices now is what they was 20 years ago. I’m going in the hole this year. One thing about our here you ain’t afraid of getting run over by a Goddamned car or something. In the city if they don’t run over you on purpose, they’ll do it accidentally. Had a hard winter of ’48 and ’49, we had a bunch of cattle down there in Lily Pard. When I left that ranch that morning, why, it was thirty-six below and got my feet froze and everything. I got up the river a ways and built me a fire and tried to dry them out. But hell, I couldn’t. So I went on up the river and this damned antelope, this one was hovered over a damned snow-bank there. Well, I just rode up and caught him. Hell, there wasn’t nothing but skin and bones on that antelope. And I just picked him up and set him up in front of the saddle. And by God, that’s about the only thing that kept me from freezing to death, cause he broke the wind and he was warm a little bit, you know. I got up against him there. And it was about midnight when I got home that night, but I froze both feet as it was. I put him in the haystack, by God. I was pretty proud of him. Cause I figured he probably saved me from getting frozed to death.
MINFORD BEARD: I’ll have to catch her with the rope to get the halter on her, I’m sure. They got no way of holding her to get the halter on• her this way, haven’t we? No way… hold you. Whoa. I’ll have to get my rope. If you just keep piddling around with her trying to put the halter on her, then she’ll finally get so… she’s always hard to put the halter on her. Pretty darn smart. They’re just a little bit smarter than most people. Really. You see, this way I can keep her head to me a little bit. What’s the matter? I just want to be on this side of you. See. You’ll wear me out. Of course, she won’t lead till we tie her up for a while. Get her head sore. The first thing you do is tie her to a post, you know, about this level so she won’t get her feet over the rope or get it down where she’ll pull her head down. What they call pull her head down. Kink in her neck and she can’t raise her head up. When her head gets sore from pulling back, then you go out and start moving around with her this way, and her head’s sore. And she’ll start coming towards you. And pretty quick she’ll realize it’s better to go with you than to pull on there. So, that’s what you call being broke to lead. They follow you. Now it’s a good idea to just tie her head around like this to the stirrup, to the cinch ring or something. And she’ll keep working against it, and break herself to turn when you pull on her. Just tie her head around. Since she’ll keep working against it and she’ll break herself a turn and pretty soon you get on and turn around a little bit, and maybe she’ll go off, and pretty soon you’re going. Hey, little colt, you’re supposed to pull back, you know. That’s part of the game. All right. Yep, that’s part of it.
MAN: I guess we got the ropes ready.
BOY: You want to let her out? You ready for her?
MINFORD BEARD: Yeah, bashful boy gonna bother you.
BOY: I give up.
MINFORD BEARD: I’m not used to front footing horses like I used to… to do this quite often, you know. Oh boy. You got to see how they do it in the West, huh? Sometimes a guy misses, you know. You know about that? They’re studs, you see. And if you don’t cut their nuts out, they just are ornery and miserable to have around.
BOY: I guess just tie him good and tight, eh?
MAN: Yeah, I would and then if you can get a hind fret and pull it right up to him solid, why, he can’t do nothing but fall down.
MINFORD BEARD: OK, let’s pull it up. And if he don’t go down, we’ll get the hind shoulder.
MAN: O.K. I think he’s all right now.
MINFORD BEARD: I might have a little trouble getting this rope without getting kicked in the head. Huh?
MINFORD BEARD: Naw. He’s got quite a temper when you mount him. Sure is real good and mad.
BOY: Are you ready?
MINFORD BEARD: Yeah. I’ll get a little air here.
BOY: Are you ready?
MINFORD BEARD: Yeah. I’m as good as I can. He’s too stout for me. might not want to show this on television. This is kind of cruel, to be done. It’s part of a rancher’s life with his horses. Them are big… boy, he’s got a bold on.
MAN: He’s got so much tension on that. You guys but it has
MINFORD BEARD: You big son-of-a-bitch. That’s the first time !… this is the first one I couldn’t get ahold of. Well, I never seen that kind of trouble, not that serious. Have him pretty quick, cut it out of him…
BOY: Would you get it…
MINFORD BEARD: Well, we’d just cut it outside, I guess.
BOY: Well, you going to leave him out?
MINFORD BEARD: Yeah.
MAN: OK, young fellow. C’mon, boy. Up you go.
BILL MOYERS: At a bend in the Snake River not far from the homestead where he was born, Monty Sheridan, divorced from his first wife, is trying to raise his children alone. They live 50 miles from the nearest town, 10 from the nearest neighbor, and so have come to rely on one another.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Shoveling is a god-damned nasty thing for cowboys. But every once in a while you have to do it, you know. It takes darn near a lifetime to learn this ranch business. It’s a lot harder… it’s a lot more work than what people really thinks it is. You’ve got to know what you’re doing. It’s just like your women. They think this ranch life is nice. Well, it is for a month or two or more. Then, by God, it gets pretty monotonous. A person’s damn-near got to be raised on a ranch to really enjoy it. I think there’d be a lot of kids stay if there’d be the money… they could make the money working on a ranch they could in the city. Of course, there’s two things that you can’t buy, you know. One of them’s a friend; another’s a wife.
MINFORD BEARD: Cut a post, Judy. You cut it and I’ll watch.
JUDY BEARD: OK.
BILL MOYERS: Judy is Minford’s wife, a farm girl from upper New York State who came out to Colorado when she was 20 years old to learn what she could about the West.
MINFORD BEARD: I assume that most women look for things to be a little rosier, you know, like the luxuries, what they call luxuries of life. I think you don’t have to have luxuries to be happy really. That’s what I think.
JUDY BEARD: You want your end in?
MINFORD BEARD: No.
JUDY BEARD: Sometimes I stay at the house and catch up on things, but it’s more interesting to be outside where things are going on. This’ll stay done. Anything one does at the house has to be repeated again almost immediately. You just want it apart where you spliced it? Honey? Minford? Do you want this taken apart where you spliced it?
MINFORD BEARD: No.
JUDY BEARD: Minford and his old white horse have taught me what I know. Minford taught me about work and Whitey taught me about punching cows. You’re not going to use this bottom wire, eh?
MINFORD BEARD: No, not yet. The gate here… we’d better go on… to another job right now.
JUDY BEARD: Let’s see. We got all our stuff? I guess.
MAN: I’ll ask you a question. The way livestock is and the price it is right now, would you buy a ranch?
MINFORD BEARD: I used to… I think I knew everybody by name at least in the county nearly at one time… about 1940… before the oil boom. Lots of new people came in, a lot of the old ones went off to war. This fellow that used to live over there. He had a real nice looking daughter. But this Gene Davis that lived back there, he had several real neat looking daughters. Of course, that wouldn’t interest most people, but it was pretty interesting to me then, I was about 18 or 19.
JUDY BEARD: The liquor store, the bank and the insurance agency is where you gather the news in Beeker.
MINFORD BEARD: Judy gathers all the good news and all and she shares it with me on her way home.
JUDY BEARD: I go to the liquor store and Minford goes to the bank.
WOMAN: $14.88, Minford.
MINFORD BEARD: $14.88?
JUDY BEARD: Maybe we’d better quit drinking, huh?
MINFORD BEARD: See you later, Alfreda.
WOMAN: Yeah, we’ll see ya. Thanks a lot.
MINFORD BEARD: Right there’s where the old school house sit when I went to school. There’s nothing there now. Hewed log building, one room with an old coal stove in it with pasture water from the river down there to drink. I’ve been to a lot of dances there, seen a lot of fights, a lot of good times. And there was a lot of pretty girls come to those dances once in a while. I think Monty’s going to be in the position that he’ll be afraid to date a woman unless he gets approval from Judy first. Because Judy’s so critical of Monty’s girlfriends.
JUDY BEARD: Right. We keep… we probably are closer to the Sheridan’s than anybody else. See more of them than anyone else. And those kids are so super, it seems if they was to get a step-mother, you know, she ought to be the… and Monty’s super. They ought to have the greatest woman in the world, not somebody he picks up in a bar. • Those Sheridan kids all care for one another. They need to touch one another, and they’re lovin’ on each other all the time.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Twenty six. It don’t make too damned much difference in your heifers, the way things are running.
MINFORD BEARD: Well, I’ll get some reports for it.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Well, ole Ellis, he said the best that he’d got was 31¢.
MINFORD BEARD: Is that right?
MONTY SHERIDAN: That’s what he heard that they was doing, 31¢.
BILL MOYERS: It’s hard for a man to make a living in the cattle business anymore. First of all, it takes a lot of land for cattle, around a hundred acres per cow out here. On eighty-six thousand acres of other men’s land Minford runs only 850 head, and this year it cost him $250 to produce a calf that’s selling for $90. Wholesale beef prices are the lowest they’ve been for 20 years, but costs have risen 400 percent. Feed has doubled in price over the last year and will go even higher. 1be cattleman is blamed for high beef prices in the supermarket, but the feeders, the shippers, the packers, and the food chains actually set the price of beef. The cowboy is at the mercy of the livestock market that tells him how much he’s going to get for his calf, just 30¢ a pound this year.
MINFORD BEARD: We had a little discussion with the banker. He thinks maybe we ought to hold them if we had the feed, but I done a little figuring on some paper and there’s no way we can come out unless they raise 5¢ a pound or more by spring.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Well, can you really come out or not…
MINFORD BEARD: No, I’s talking breaking even.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Yeah. No, that’s the whole thing. I’d rather sell ’em here; get a buyer. But if you can’t get a buyer, there’s no need to keep a’stallin. I’d’ve been in a hell of a shape last fall if I’d’ve kept waiting for a buyer, you know.
MINFORD BEARD: Sure.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Yeah, I’d’ve been in hell of a shape.
MINFORD BEARD: with a knife. You ain’t got no business sawing this kindlin’ wood. It’s easier.
MONTY SHERIDAN: How would you knock that piece off?
MINFORD BEARD: Well, if I had the ax, I’d show you.
MONTY SHERIDAN: That’s easy to solve. Split it
MINFORD BEARD: If we need anything done, we can always go get Monty. Whenever we need help, that’s where we go because there’s nobody else to go to. I think it’s what caused the West to be developed… is the way people trusted and depended upon one another and lived up to this trust.
MONTY SHERIDAN: When I was a kid 16, I was four-footing horses and riding bucking horses and I was taking a man’s place. And that littlest one of mine, why, he’d be a good cowboy when he’s 16 if he keeps on going. When I was 16, hell, I wouldn’t back down for no guy… riding a horse or anything else. When I was 16, I figured I was a man.
MINFORD BEARD: I used to have a dream about having 500 cows. There was two things I wanted to do. Maybe, there was two things. I wanted to have 500 cows and I accomplished that without too much problem, you know. I didn’t do it when I was in my teens, but I finally did get a ranch where I could run 500 cows and more. And the other thing was I used to watch these guys riding these broncos when I was a kid. And I always thought I would like to grow up so I could ride as good as some of these fellows. And finally, I accomplished that. I think I got as good as they was. I really never know, but at least I got so I could ride most of the horses I run into. As kids, when we was helping with the cattle, you get up early in the morning and you get out somewhere, you know, and you never had a drink all day.
A cowboy has to be a “vetenary”; he should be a fence builder. He’s got to shoe his horses, got to be able to doctor his horses, and he’s got to take care of his equipment, his saddles, and his ropes, bridles. You’ve got to know the type of bridle to put on each different horse that handles different. And he has to have knowledge of the country, how to get across rivers and mudholes. You have to pull a cow out of a bog; you have to pull a calf. You have to doctor cattle every which way for every kind of thing you can think of. Well, he’s got to be tougher than hell. Well, it was normal, when you went to work for an outfit, you worked from a right after breakfast which was usually daylight, till sundown, or dark.
MINFORD BEARD: And a lot of times until quite a while dark if you’re out quite a ways. Used to get $30 a month. And if you was working on a ranch and you could stack hay, which was pretty hard work; and if you done the stacking, you got $5 more per month. Then, eventually in the ’30’s, things started picking up a little bit, wages finally got up to where you could get around $50 a month if you was a good hand and done a little extra, you know; like break horses, when you was punching cows… if you dried the mean ones, they’d pay you about $50 a month. No fringe benefits. You got your beans… usually beans and coffee and bacon and sometimes had to kill your own buckskin out in camp, you know. But along about 1940, then, things started changing and wages got more. War came on, you know. Everything changed and it’s kept changing ever since. Corporations have taken over a lot. Land developments, housing developments, oil shale, all kinds of mineral exploration. And you might say the old cow ranch is nearly a thing of the past. There’s people my age and a little older and a little bit younger, dying off. There’s nobody around that will know the life we led. There’s no way. I don’t know as we’re any better off for having lived that type of life. We just have knowledge of our own time, that’s all that you people would have. You’ll have knowledge of a different time.
MONTY SHERIDAN: I guess we’d just as well head up that hill, hadn’t we? O-key-dokey. We’ll see you at the top.
BILL MOYERS: In a far corner of Three-Springs Ranch roams a band of wild horses. Monty and Minford and their friends go after them to catch and break them for the work of the cow pony. The wild horses are the best horses around, so the cowboys say. And they have chased them since they were kids. But there’s a difference now. A Federal law prohibits the catching of wild horses on public land. And so, the cowboys no longer go there. It’s a necessary law because the wild horses once were killed by the thousands, for the fun of it, or for dog food and glue. Monty and Minford catch the wild horses for another reason. Everything it means to be a cowboy is pitted against all that the wild horse represents. A hundred years ago, before barbed wire fences began to cut up the land, wild horses came to Northwestern Colorado. They were not descendants of the Spanish mustangs, but were domesticated horses on the run. Some were left behind when the Indians were exiled into the Utah Desert. Others were strays who wandered off from the homesteads and ranches. The horses went deeper and deeper into the wilderness and stayed there. Only the fittest survived. What finally emerged is today’s so-called wild horse, a compact creature, tough and fast, but something else too. A symbol of what we believe the West to be: untamed and free.
MINFORD BEARD: Well, ours went that way. Which way’d yours go?
MONTY SHERIDAN: It went your way. Boy, I got into ’em. A lot of ’em. Where did they circle at?
MINFORD BEARD: I don’t know where the first bunch went, but they went outside around the ridge and we never picked him up again, but then I came around and jumped the second bunch. And you know~ they fooled me. They went up there over that hill and through that pass. I thought they’d go around by that trap, you know, this trap we went by this morning, And they didn’t, I guess. I didn’t see no use in going that way, so I come off the hill to get through the fence, and I just get through the fence and was going down the fence on this side, and here them suckers come down the other side the fence behind me. (Laughter) Yessir.
MAN: Well, them horses heard us before we could get up there anywhere near it. We couldn’t see it when they started ’cause they heard us coming. You know, in these rocks three horses makes just three times as much racket as one anyway, you know, and gee whiz, we sure done a lot of clattering getting around up there.
MINFORD BEARD: That last bunch?
MAN: Yeah. Either that or they’d smelled Raoul over across there.
MONTY SHERIDAN: You think you’ll ever amount to a damned, Raoul? (Laughter)
MAN: When I was a ‘growing up, I had two brothers and we got awful good at this wild horse chasing ’cause whatever the circumstances were, well, we knew just exactly what that other was going to do under any given condition. You know? Of course, we did finally get too good after we got plum growed up, why, my brother just younger than I, we were running wild horses. And he got killed, you know, running horses.
We was a’running two little ole yearlings, just little ole things not much bigger than these colts here. And they split up, you know, like you do when you’re running ’em. And I run one off down over the hill and was gone quite a little bit… caught it down in there and it took me quite a bit to get back to where I had last seen him. And I just supposed he had his horse caught back up there, cause he was right against us when I saw him. But I couldn’t find him and so I went and took his tracks. There was, oh, about yeamuch fresh snow on the ground. I took his tracks where I’d last seen him there and just followed him down to the edge of the trees and his horse had hit a limb sticking out on a cedar. It was only about that high off the ground, just high enough that it had tripped his saddle horse, and he turned right straight over with him out there.
MAN: And of course, he had his rope down with a loop made in it, you know. And that horse had hit him hard enough on the ground there… of course, there’s no way of knowing… I know it couldn’t have knocked him out. But it had knocked the wind out of him bad enough that that horse beat him up and got the end of that rope before he could get out of it and when I found him, he was tangled up in the roots of an old pinion stump, setting up there. That is, his rope was wound around it. He was just pulled up against it in a sitting position with his loop right around his neck. His left hand was in it that way… still had his glove on that hand. But his saddle was turned on his horse and the rope between the horse’s hind legs, and he was just setting down back there on the end of that rope holding it.
MAN: If Hinford shows up, tell him we went that ‘away.
MAN: When I get his front feet, you pull him right up, eh. Pull ’em right up. Uh-oh. Missed him. Now pull him up. Now let him slack off.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Bull-dogged that son-of-a-bitch, ain’t you?
MAN: Turn him over. Pull it out and tie it on his saddle.
MONTY SHERIDAN: See, the excitement starts leaving soon after you catch something. Soon as you get it caught, you’ve fulfilled that day, so you know, maybe you get your good horse to take home and keep or sell to somebody or give to a friend. Or you can turn it loose again and let it go free. What’d I tell you when I died? That I wanted to be skinned out and have my hide made into a woman’s riding saddle so it’d always be between the two things I loved the most, a good horse and a beautiful woman.
MINFORD BEARD: That’s a crude, Monty. You’re gonna put on a better one than that.
MONTY SHERIDAN: No, I ain’t.
MINFORD BEARD: Yes, you are.
MONTY SHERIDAN: Damned if I am. OK.
MINFORD BEARD: C’mon, baby. It’s all yours Doing knots. It don’t even hurt, does it. Huh?
BILL MOYERS: And finally, for the moment, they let the horses go. Way back in 1839 a trail hand came through these parts and, seeing a wild horse, wrote in his diary: “He bounds away, swift as the arrow of the Indian’s bow, or even the lightning darting from the cloud. We might have shot him from where we stood, but had we been starving, we scarcely would have done it. He was free and we loved him for the very possession of that liberty we longed to take.” So it is with these cowboys. Like the horses they ride and hunt, Monty Sheridan and Minford Beard live a hard life filled with risks. They live as free as one can today, but like the dinosaur, the buffalo and the Indian, who once roamed these same vast stretches, both the wild horse and the cowboy are passing into history. Someday, they will be gone.
This transcript was entered on June 24, 2015.