Photography: Richard Field Levine
Photography: Richard Field Levine

After being asked to contribute an essay to C&I’s cowgirl issue, I carried the idea with me for weeks. But it was winter, the cows were situated, and I was in my office much of the time. Nothing very interesting presented itself. In late March we started our spring works here on the Spider Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, and my mind turned once again to the topic. It only took one evening of burgers around the fire, a night of sleeping in canvas and wool, a morning of wood smoke and coffee, and suddenly I could “see” this piece. I wrote it down in my notebook when I got back to camp after the first day of gathering cows, literally unable to write it until I had dirt under my fingernails and horse sweat as my perfume.

At Cottonwood Spring, there is a tree that sings. Sometimes it is a squeaky gate, sometimes a flute, sometimes a soprano warming up her voice. I am sitting on my horse here in the creek bed, waiting, holding a few cows against the fence until the boss, my husband, comes along with more. I may be here for a while.When a woman hires on to cowboy, these are not the moments she anticipates, not the moments anyone talks about. There are no witnesses, no cameras, no glitter, no wild rides with her hair blowing in the wind.

There is no printed job description for “cowgirl.”

A few months ago, I passed out a survey to a handful of women who have cowboyed for a paycheck. I was not surprised to discover that most of them didn’t have a strong affinity for the word cowgirl. Many of them cited semantics or wryly wrote something about rodeo queens. These women more often think of themselves as cowboys or ranch hands, or simply ranch women.

But no matter what we call ourselves, we are out here.

We are riding. And digging postholes. Tying in stays. Calving heifers, haying, windmilling ... often with a toddler in tow.We are cooking over a campfire or in a slow cooker, even after having brought in our share of the cows that day. We’re training young horses. Doctoring sick animals. We’re riding point or bringing up the drag. We may even be complaining about how Western jeans aren’t made of heavy enough denim anymore, and we won’t buy a pair with bling on the back pockets when we have to ride on them for nine hours a day.

Our gear and tack look much like the men’s except for the rubies on the buckle of our chaps. We own several pairs of work gloves, and we can pull a knife out of our pocket or off our belt if we need to, even when we are all dressed up, attending some event in town. We can kill a rattlesnake. Fix a water leak and plant a garden. Maybe shoe a horse.

Some women were born into this way of life. Some, as poet and ranch wife Patricia Frolander points out, married into it. Some stepped out onto the path, not following husband or father, but with a strong sense of purpose and choice. Many have had to walk away from the lifestyle through circumstance. But they long for it, identify with being a cowgirl, and will miss it for the rest of their lives.

I came to this job late. I’ve been a ranch wife since shortly before my 20th birthday, cooking for cowboys, cleaning up after cowboys, even home-schooling a small cowboy. I’ve listened to cowboy stories since the day I was born. But now I ride. Now I spend my share of days in the saddle, mainly learning to see. I am learning to see the angles and vectors and biology of working cattle. I am learning to see when a mama cow has come to the feed ground and left her baby stashed under a tree. I am learning to throw my loop at the same angle as a calf’s shoulder and not look at my saddle horn when I dally. I am learning when to make noise and ride hard, and when to back off and be quiet and give that little heifer some space. I am learning to work with my partner in the sorting pen, slow and easy, with more finesse than before. I am learning to trust my horse over the rocks and hold my eyes open during meteor showers no matter how tired I am when I lie down.

Yesterday I rode 20 miles. I rode one horse and led two more into a remote camp, dropped the extras in the horse pasture to wait until we’d return in a few days, and then turned toward Cottonwood Camp. As I rode, I realized that I was looking forward to cooking over the fire even though my hands would turn black and it would take two washings to get the scent of wood smoke out of my hair when we got home. I was looking forward to eight days without a shower, to two meals a day rather than three, to getting smarter about looking at the ground and knowing what I was seeing as we trailed up these cows. I was looking forward to getting stronger as the days went by and being able to get on my horse with ease by the end of spring works.

Perhaps I will even decide to like the word cowgirl.

This morning the tree sings soprano in the breeze. I use the first few minutes of my wait to air my horse’s back, stretch my legs, take off my coat, and tie it on behind my saddle. When I climb back aboard, everything around me stills, and I begin to hear. The creek water gurgles over the rocks. A lizard, wakened early by an unseasonably warm spring, scratches his way through the leaves and along the bark of a tree. A zone-tailed hawk screams from up the canyon, a different scream than the one she’ll use when her nest is full of chicks. In a few weeks, the lupine and clover will be stirrup-high, and I might find some morels in the clearings along the creek banks. I know to watch for a king snake making his way through the rocks, and I’ll find a bear track beside the water in the sand.

I can’t actually see the cows I am holding through the brush and trees, but I know they are there, bedded down in the shade. I must stay here, in position, blocking the trail out the other side in case my husband brings more cattle from up the creek where he went to check the water gap and the bed ground up on the ridge. But my girls are here. I saw the red cow lie down through that gap in the leaves, and over there I can see the black calf’s tail switch from time to time. And just now, one of the cows started licking herself. I can hear each swipe of her rough tongue.

Soon we’ll take them along the creek to the corrals and holding trap, picking up any volunteers along the way. It is time to move down the country, down to the desert where the green is carpeting the ground beneath the cedars and mesquites. Where I might see a Gila monster on the trail. This is what I do.

And this is why I know that at Cottonwood Spring, there is a tree that sings.

From the January 2014 issue.


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