A Man Called Boots
A Man Called Boots
By Jim Jennings
For the past seven decades, Boots O’Neal, 89, has cowboyed on some of the largest ranches in the country, including the JA, the Matador, Waggoner and Four Sixes in Texas, and the O RO and Babbitt in Arizona.
|Boots O'Neal (Photos by Bud Force)|
In the spring of 1949, 16-year-old Billy Milton “Boots” O’Neal was feeling like a grown man. He had caught a ride from his home in Lefors, Texas, down to Clarendon, Texas, about 50 miles away, and had spent the night in a hotel–it cost him $3. The next day, the JA Ranch bookkeeper took him down 25 miles of dirt road to the ranch headquarters in the bottom of Palo Duro Canyon.
The next morning, John Ray, one of the ranch employees, hauled Boots and a box of groceries down to the river. The river was up from some rain upstream–couldn’t be crossed in a vehicle–so John unloaded the groceries there on the riverbank and told Boots, “There’ll be a wagon and team show up over there in a little bit and come across to get you and these groceries.” John had been gone for about an hour now, and as Boots sat there all alone on his bedroll and watched that red, muddy water roll down through that canyon, he began to wonder if just maybe he might should have stayed at home with Momma.
“Then I saw a bed wagon and team show up across the river,” Boots says. “They had two mounted cowboys with the wagon, and I watched as one of them tied his rope to the end of the tongue and the other one put his rope over the wagon box and tied it to the running gear so it wouldn’t float off in that deep water.”
When the wagon got across, Boots helped load the groceries onto the bed wagon and then threw on his bed and saddle before climbing aboard. It was about a mile and a half back to where the crew was camped, and a rope corral was already set up. The wagon boss, Bud Long, handed Boots a stake rope and a piece of paper with a list of his horses.
The JA Ranch had about 175 saddle horses, and each cowboy had what they called a mount of 10 to 12 horses, which were horses that only that cowboy rode. When a new cowboy arrived at the wagon, he was given a slip of paper with the names of the horses in his mount. He was also issued a stake rope, and every evening, the cowboys would catch the horses they were going to ride the next day and stake them out so they could be easily caught and saddled the next morning in the dark. Work started as soon as it was daylight. Each horse would be staked in a different place every night so there would be plenty of grass for him to eat, since that’s all he was going to get.
“I can still remember that first horse they caught for me,” Boots says. “He was a brown 1933 model called Rabbit. I staked him out that night so I’d be ready to go the next morning.”
After dinner the next day, Bud announced to the cowboy crew that they were going to ride broncs that afternoon, and he roped one for Boots. Broncs on a ranch were not necessarily bucking horses but were horses that were new to the remuda and were generally untrained. However, many of them would buck.
“He roped me a 6-year-old sorrel, and he was so unbroke they had to drag him out of the rope corral with a horse,” Boots says. “They hobbled him, and I got him saddled, and I just kinda oozed up on him. Boy, that thing bucked, but I rode him. I think they just wanted to find out how bad I wanted the job, figured they would wind me up and send me back to town. He bucked with me two or three times that evening, but I managed to slip by him. That horse wasn’t on the list Bud had given me, and I never had to ride him again.”
That wasn’t the youngster’s first experience riding broncs, although he says he wasn’t used to riding anything as strong as a 6-year-old bucking horse. Boots was born in Clarendon in 1932 while his father, who was the first one to be called Boots, was working for the RO Ranch. Young Boots grew up in nearby Lefors, helping his dad while he was going to school. Boots says he started to school in 1938, and that he was called Little Boots the first time he got on the school bus. Later, he, too, became just Boots.
Right after he turned 16, Boots and his 15-year-old brother, Wes, broke 20 3-year-olds for the RO. Later that year, convinced he could make it on his own, Boots quit school and headed for the JA.
On the third day after 16-year-old Boots had arrived at the JA camp, the whole outfit moved to another part of the ranch. The chuckwagon, pulled by four horses, was driven by the cook. His helper, called the hoodlum or “hood,” drove the hoodlum wagon, which was full of tepees and supplies and pulled by two big Percherons. The last wagon, called the bed wagon, contained everyone’s bedrolls and was pulled by two old bucking horses that had been trained to work. It was always driven by the cowboy who was at the bottom in seniority. That was Boots.
“We were going down the riverbed,” says Boots. “The river had gone down by then, was only about a foot deep. I was sitting up on top of about 15 bedrolls with the lines in my hand, trying to roll a Bull Durham cigarette, and I accidentally dropped one of the lines. When that line hit the ground, those two old bucking horses left there. And they was a’ motorin’ when they passed that chuckwagon.
“The cook was named Bud Reed, and Bud hollered, ‘Jump off, son, jump off!’ I bailed off that wagon with it running wide open right before it turned over in the water. Those two old broncs tore some harness up, and I figured they would fire me for sure, but I don’t remember Bud saying very much about it. The boys complained a little about their beds being wet, but nobody ever said anything to me. Bud did tell me that I ought to be careful trying to smoke up there on those beds.”
Boots tells about a time the next year, when they had moved camp and, because it was late in the evening and a storm was blowing in, they didn’t take the time to put up the stationary rope corral. The cowboys just got in a circle, each holding onto the end of their ropes, creating a temporary corral to hold the horses while someone roped each of them a horse to stake for the next morning. Then it began to rain, and flashes of lightning were playing around in the sky.
“We were all just humped up, holding those ropes,” Boots says, “when, all of a sudden, a clean, blue flash shot right across the top of them horses. It knocked three or four of the horses down and knocked two or three men down. It really shocked those of us holding the ropes, and little kernels came up under our arms. The horses ran over the ropes, and they left out of there in a run. I figured Bud Long, the wagon boss, would holler for us to get around them, but I was sure relieved when he said, ‘Let ’em go.’”
|Boots O'Neal (white shirt) and cowboys at the Redland Camp on the Babbitt Ranch in Arizona. (Courtesy of Boots O'Neal|
The chuckwagon went out each spring, usually in April, when the grass started turning green, which was important because grass is all the horses had to eat. The wagon stayed out seven to eight months, until about November, when the grass turned brown and the horses began to get a little weak. By that time, all the calves on the ranch had been worked and branded.
The cowboys would often stay at the wagon at least two months at a time during the summer without ever going back to headquarters or to town. They worked seven days a week.
The only clothes they had were what was rolled up in their bedroll, usually a couple of shirts, a pair of jeans and some underwear–no one was allowed to have a suitcase because when they moved camp, everything had to go in the bed wagon, and there was no room. Everything they needed had to be either on their horse or in their bed.
The only opportunity to clean up would be occasionally at a windmill. But when the chance to go to town came, most everyone took advantage of it.
Boots says, “In Clarendon, there was a barber shop that had a shower in the back, cost a dime. I would go in there and take a shower, and Johnny Bates, who shined shoes at the barber shop, would take my clothes to the laundry. There would be a package of clothes there from the last time I was in town–shorts, shirt, britches and socks–and I would put them on, pay Johnny for the laundry and a shine, get a haircut and shave, and I would be cleaned up and ready to go. I did that lots of times when I was in town.”
When the wagon pulled into headquarters around November 1, the majority of the horses were turned out to winter on their own. Some of the cowboys left the ranch at that time, but those who stayed became what was known as a floating crew.
“We were working just like we were at the wagon,” Boots says, “only we floated from camp to camp. They had 12 or 13 camps scattered around the ranch, where a cowboy and his family lived, and when you were working in that area, the ranch paid the camper’s wife to feed you. There was a bunkhouse at each camp, but it wasn’t anything like today’s bunkhouses. It was just an empty building, and the only furniture in it would be a wood stove, a water bucket and a lamp. Six or eight of us would roll our beds out on the floor and sleep there.
“They’d have us cut our mount down to three old horses and a bronc that would be a coming 5-year-old,” he says, “so each man would have four horses. We’d have about 70 horses with us, and we would hang a morral (feedbag) with oats in it on every one of them at night and in the morning since the grass wasn’t very good in the winter.”
By 1950, Boots’ younger brother, Wes, had come to work for the JA, and that winter, Boots and Wes were assigned to the bronc pen.
“We broke broncs three winters in a row,” Boots says. “We were supposed to break about 50 head of 4-year-olds, and other than being branded when they were weaned, and forefooted and tied down when they were 2 so they could be castrated, they had never been touched by the human hand. They had been running out in that Palo Duro Canyon all their lives and were wild as deer. They would run if they saw a man horseback, but we would take a crew down there and round them up and pen them in a corral. All the 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds were running together–there would be about a hundred of them–and after we got them gathered, we’d turn the 3-year-olds back out.”
Boots and Wes would work on eight head at a time. There were no chutes, so they would start by forefooting each one, tying him down and putting a halter on him, letting him up and then dragging him with a big horse outside to a stake rock and tying him to it.
“We would stake eight head every day,” Boots says. “We would go back the next morning and drag them into the corrals and tie them to a fence. Then we would start by dragging one into the round pen, tying a foot up and saddling him. We would do all eight that way.”
Boots says they would ride each horse five times–once in the round corral, once in the big corral and then outside for the next three days. At the end of five days, they would drive those eight to wherever the cowboys were, and then come back and stake eight more the next morning. They would do that until they had ridden all 50 head five times.
“We had to guarantee that they would stay in a rope corral,” he says, “and you had to be able to rope them and lead them out, put a hackamore on them and hobble them while they were saddled. Of course, they would nearly all still buck, but the cowboys then were all young men. If there was an older fellow at the wagon, he usually traded with some young guy to ride his for a while because they just weren’t safe to ride.
“I don’t know how Wes and I did it,” Boots says, “but on that third saddling, when we started riding them outside, we would get on a bronc apiece and take them out in that old rough and rocky pasture, in all that brush–it was really brushy–and there wasn’t another living soul anywhere around. And that first year, we were only 16 and 17 years old.”
Boots says that in the 1950s, lots of cowboys worked for multiple ranches at different times. He says that if a cowboy went through branding and then left when the wagon came in, the ranch didn’t care–they didn’t need everyone anyway. And if you were a good hand and came back wanting a job, if they had a mount of horses for you, they would hire you back. In the early 1950s, Boots left the JA and went to the Matador Ranch–in the Texas Panhandle near Adrian–for a few months, went back to the JA, back to the Matador and then to the Bell Ranch division of the W.T. Waggoner Estate in New Mexico.
“I hadn’t been at Waggoners very long,” Boots says, “when I got the letter from the Army telling me that I had been drafted. But it was going to be a few months before I was going to have to go, so I just kept working. Then one afternoon about 5, I was on a colt in the round pen when they brought a truckload of oats up there and two men started unloading them with scoop shovels. The straw boss asked me, ‘Boots, do you want to help us unload these oats?’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve got too much money tied up in leather to unload them oats. I’d rather go back to Texas.’ He said, ‘Well, don’t leave over it.’
“I got to thinking that I should either help unload those oats or leave,” Boots says, “so I throwed my saddle and bed in my car and hollered at the straw boss, ‘Mail my check to Clarendon, I’m going to pull out.’”
On his way back to Clarendon, Boots stopped at a station in Adrian to get a cup of coffee and some gas. The Matador wagon boss was in there.
“It hadn’t been but a couple of months since I had left the Matador,” Boots says, “and he told me they still had my mount of horses up. So I went with him back to the ranch. I turned a horse loose at Waggoners about 5 in the evening and caught another one on Matadors before daylight the next morning.
“You can’t do that now,” he says, “something like that would follow you. They would talk about how I wouldn’t unload them oats. And I’m ashamed of it now. But back then, cowboys didn’t do much of that. You just rode.”
While Boots was working at the Matador, he got his notice to report to the Army, and ended up spending nine months on the 38th parallel in Korea right after a truce had been declared.
“The whole time I was there, I was never in a building,” Boots says. “We lived in a tent the whole time. I always thought I had an advantage on some of those boys I was with, because I had been staying at the wagon, camping outside the last two years. Some of those boys had never stayed outside all night in their lives, and it was really cold and bad. That was really tough duty for them.
“But I had camped outside in some cold weather before,” he says, “several times. Once, the day after Christmas in 1949, the JA wagon boss sent a bunch of us to the upper end of Palo Duro Canyon to clean the cattle out of a ranch that they had sold. They hauled our stuff up there in a truck, but we trotted up there and drove the horses with us and set up camp by a spring. We stayed there six days, and the Amarillo weather bureau said it got so cold it set a record. It was so cold at night that I would put on extra clothes and my cap, tie the ear flaps down on it, and crawl in my bed. But we would get up about 3 in the morning and build a big fire so we could warm up.”
Boots got out of the Army in 1955 and went back to work for the W.T. Waggoner Estate, but this time at what was called the lower ranch, headquartered at Vernon, Texas.
“Waggoners, at that time, was one of the greatest cow outfits I ever worked for,” Boots says. “We worked seven days a week, and the wagon stayed out year-round. It was a big cow outfit. There were 800 sections in that thing, and they had 14,000 cows. There were 225 horses in the remuda.
“We started branding in the spring and branded until we started weaning,” he says, “and we weaned until we started branding again. You would start across that thing, and when you got through, it was time to start again.”
After five years at the Waggoner wagon, Boots quit in 1960 and went to work for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association as a brand inspector.
“I worked there four years,” Boots says, “and it’s one of the best things I ever did. I improved my education and met lots of nice people. I was driving a nice car, wearing good clothes, but deep down, I just wanted to punch cows. I remember eating dinner at the Four Sixes wagon one day after a shipment, and as I was driving off in that nice car, the boys were catching horses. I remember thinking, ‘You know what, I’d rather be with them than doing this,’ and I made a deal with Waggoners and went back there in the spring of 1964. Stayed there 19 years.”
When Boots went back to the Waggoner Ranch, he ran the bronc pens for the next 11 years. He says he and three or four other men broke 40 to 50 broncs every winter. In 1975, he was promoted to ranch manager and moved to the ranch headquarters.
While Boots was at Waggoners, he sometimes took three weeks of vacation and went to Arizona to work on the O RO and the Babbitt ranches, two of the largest ranches in the country.
Boots says, “Once, at the O ROs, we were headed to a camp back in the Mohon Mountains, and we had to pack our groceries and beds on mules. You couldn’t get a wagon or a vehicle back in there. There was 10 cowboys, a cook, a hoodlum and a horse wrangler–13 men. We had eight mules.
“We cut five horses apiece out of the remuda for the 10 cowboys, and two for the wrangler, one for the cook and one for the hood,” Boots says, “which made 54 head of horses. We put two beds apiece on five mules, and on the other three mules we put the other three beds, the cooking outfit, some groceries, a branding outfit and a quarter of a beef. We left there driving those horses and mules, and we had to cross Pinery Canyon, which was a gigantic, deep canyon. The trail was just barely wide enough for a man horseback, and we were driving those horses and mules single file down that trail. You could look way down below and see the leaders.”
Boots says it was the same way coming back a few days later, other than they were also driving some dry cows and yearlings they had picked up.
He says, “We had a 16 or 17-year-old kid with us. We were up there in those mountains, and the boss told this kid to drop off in this canyon and meet us on the other side. That kid started off down there, and it was really steep and rocky. His horse was sliding sideways, and rocks were rolling down ahead of him. He looked back up there at us and says, ‘Will y’all tell my mother how this happened?’ I got a big kick out of that.”
In 1983, after eight years as ranch manager, Boots retired from Waggoners and spent the next four years working for Walter Merrick, who had ranches in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico. Although Merrick was well known for his racehorses, he also had about 3,000 head of cattle on those ranches, and that’s where Boots spent his time.
In 1987, Boots and his wife, Nelda, whom he had married while he was working for the cattle raisers association, retired again and moved into Vernon. He was running a few cattle of his own and pasturing some cattle for some others, along with trading a few horses, when, in 1990, J.J. Gibson, who was general manager of the Four Sixes Ranch at Guthrie, Texas, called Boots and wanted to hire him.
|Boots O'Neal branding cattle at the Four Sixes Ranch at Guthrie, Texas. (Photo by Emerson Miller)|
Boots met with J.J. and ranch owner Anne Marion, made a deal, and he and Nelda moved into one of the ranch-owned houses in Guthrie. Nelda moved back to Vernon in 1999 to take care of their home place, and Boots would go home every weekend. Nelda died in 2006, and Boots then moved into an apartment that Marion had fixed for him in the ranch bunkhouse.
Boots turned 89 last September. He has been with the Four Sixes 32 years but has been working as a cowboy for 73 years. However, it hasn’t been without a few problems along the way. In 2006, he had a knee replaced. Then, in 2014, at the age of 82, while all alone in a pasture, Boots was bucked off his horse and knocked unconscious. When his horse came in without him, the cowboys began to look for him.
“When they found me, I was unconscious,” Boots says, “but they said I had one glove off and my phone was lying there by me. I guess I had tried to get it out and call them, but I passed out before I got it done. When they found me, I woke up, but when they tried to load me in the pickup, it hurt so bad I told them to just leave me there, I’d had a good life. But, of course, they wouldn’t do it.”
The cowboys called a medevac helicopter out of Lubbock to pick Boots up and take him to the hospital.
“I was lying in that helicopter, and I heard the pilot call the hospital,” Boots says. “He told them he was bringing one in but he didn’t think the patient was going to make it. I started to just sit up and tell him, ‘Now, wait a minute here.’”
At the hospital, it was determined that Boots had fractured a vertebra in his back, along with 12 busted ribs, one of which had punctured a lung. Eight weeks later, he was horseback.
“I’ve only got five horses in my mount today,” Boots says. “I’ve got one 6-year-old that I really like, and I’ve got four older horses. They’re all top horses; I’ve got two really good cutting horses. Joe (ranch manager Joe Leathers) lets me do a lot of the cutting when we’ve got a herd gathered. I rode all day yesterday, changed horses at dinner.
“Every morning, Tru (wagon boss Tru Burson) calls me at the bunkhouse and asks me what horse I want. I tell him, and then he saddles him for me. I tell him that embarrasses me, but I really like it.”
Boots has won awards for riding broncs, and he has won saddles for roping in different rodeos. In 2010, he was awarded the Chester A. Reynolds Award at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and in 2019, he was the first recipient of the Working Cowboy Award presented by the National Ranching Heritage Association in Lubbock. In March 2023, Boots was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. Some of those awards sit on shelves in his apartment or hang on the walls next to assorted pictures that have been taken during the past 70 years.
“I’ve had a job since 1949, drawing a check every month,” he says. “I’ve never been fired, and I’ve never drawed unemployment. But I always wanted to work. I don’t hunt, I don’t fish and I don’t play golf. I just always wanted to be a cowboy.”
He is one.