At the B-C Ranch in Texas, cowpokes are a gentle sort Women reign on the plain

October 18, 1993|By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

ALPINE, Texas -- In the early morning darkness, the activities around the B-C Ranch look pretty much like those at any other ranch in this expansive country.

Shadows move between trucks and trailers, whispers carry like full voices in the dark, and the screen door bangs like a bass drum across the prairie.

Eggs and bacon are filling the ranch house with welcoming smells, though there will be only a moment when everyone can sit and eat. The last gulp of coffee will be taken on the run. The sun is breaking over the Del Norte and Glass Mountains.

The hands are dangerously close to the unconscionable sin of ranching: They are about to burn daylight. They still have to load feed for the cattle, hook up trailers and gather the saddles and bridles for the horses.

But it's not until the West Texas sun illuminates this beautiful valley just north of town near the Big Bend country that the B-C outfit becomes distinctive.

There are no men.

No cowboys with jingling spurs, no cheeks bulging with tobacco.

The B-C Ranch is run by women, employs only women. It is time for fall roundup, and additional hands are needed. They, too, will be women.

There is no outright prejudice against men, just bad experiences. At the B-C, the cattle are handled gently. They are coaxed, not prodded, and sometimes cowboys have a hard time dealing with that.

These women don't. They have worked together for years, bound by friendship and common attitudes toward the livestock.

Charlene Atkinson, a retired Red Oak schoolteacher, comes in from her home in Odessa. Margo Lauderdale and Pat Drake, also retired teachers, drive in from Jayton.

Dellalene Baker, a veterinarian from Denison, and her assistant, Pat McCormish, travel the 600 miles from North Central Texas. J'Lynn Johnston arrives from around Whitesboro, near the Oklahoma border.

They join forces with the ranch's regular hands: owner Becky Smith, Cathy Fortenberry and Karen Waggoner. The women range in age from their 20s to their 60s. All are single, some divorced. All but Ms. Drake have been coming to the roundup for years.

As they begin herding the purebred Herefords toward the pens on the 5,000-acre ranch, the long hair dangling beneath some of the riders' straw hats is the only visible mark of gender.

Today, they are cowhands first and women second.

It has been that way on the B-C for the past 12 years, since Perry Cartwright turned the roundup chores over to Ms. Smith.

Mr. Cartwright and his family started the ranch near the turn of the century. He and his father came to the area in the late 1890s, the 62-year-old Ms. Smith says. They camped out all over the country, looking for the best place to settle.

Eventually, after carefully judging the grass and the local rainfall, they settled on the site that now sits on the border of Alpine's city limits.

Mr. Cartwright died in 1981. He was 91.

"He left me the ranch," Ms. Smith says. "I went to work for him in the 1970s and he taught me everything he knew. Being a registered nurse, I quickly found out that when the calving is taking place, they go through the same stages of labor that women do; that was a help. But as far as management -- how to choose the bulls, how to select the keeper heifers for your own replacements, what grasses we had, how to care for the windmills and that kind of thing -- all of that came from him."

Ms. Smith began her career as a nurse in Alabama and went into the Air Force Nurse Corps in 1955. After the service, she entered preveterinary studies at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. She says: "I came down with something God-awful and had to drop out. My health wasn't good and I couldn't take it."

She had visited Alpine, liked it and decided to move there.

She worked at the hospital for a while and then moved to the Alpine Veterinary Clinic, where she eventually met Mr. Cartwright.

"Our friendship began when he gave me a doggie calf (one whose mother isn't giving enough milk)," she remembers. "It was 1967, and before it was over he had given me eight. He told me later that he was impressed with the way I took care of them.

"He was fantastic. I wish you could have met him. Instead of a cowboy, he was a cowman."

Ms. Smith went to work for Mr. Cartwright. He also hired Ms. Fortenberry. In 1981, he asked them whether they could handle the roundup by themselves.

"He saw how gentle we were with the cattle," Ms. Smith says. "He didn't like the way they had been handled by previous people -- and I'm not going to mention any names -- he didn't like the way they were being hit with 2-by-4s to get them to go in the chutes, and hit with hot-shots every time you turned around.

"He was a very gentle man, and a compassionate man. He upped and asked me one day -- he was 90 years old -- he said, Becky, do you think you and Cathy can get enough people together and do the roundup yourselves this year?'

"I told him I thought I could. I'd just have to try. That's how this all started. I got on the phone and started calling all the friends I had known."

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