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88-year old at home on the range

88-year old at home on the range

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SARITA - They call him "Blacky," but at some point during decades sitting in a saddle, Jose Salazar, a twig of an old cowboy, forgot where and how he got his nickname.

Having ridden fences for so long, Salazar, 88, wheezes from boredom at home and refuses to retire.

He's that rare type, a man who relishes the thought of Monday morning. It is then that co-workers at the San Pedro Kenedy Ranch Co. boost him onto a mare's back for the start of another workweek.

"I will die sooner at home," he said in a voice slightly higher than a whisper. "I am there just thinking all the time. That's not good."

Salazar, who weighs 110 pounds and has a prosthetic foot from a long-ago car wreck, is the oldest of a crowd of some 20 other hardened cowboys who work at Kenedy's. Several of them are wrinkled by age, making the 200,000-acre ranch a sort of cowboy nursing home.

But even as they cling to this way of life - a real, albeit mythologized, part of old South Texas culture - it's passing into history, fading with the death of each elderly cowboy. Salazar's workload and that of other ranch hands has been drastically cut back to a shift that ends at noon instead of nightfall as cattle increasingly are rounded up by helicopter.

Mike East, who owns a large neighboring spread and leases the ranch from the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust, has neither the intention nor the heart to let the old-timers go.

"They've worked there all their life," East said. "How can you tell them they can't come to work anymore? They want to come. You have a lot of younger people that don't want to come. Why penalize the older person?"

East is 62 and knows the value of experience. Besides, he said, even as times are changing with new technology, the skills of the old cowboys come in handy.

"They do more than you think," he said. "They move cattle around on horseback and don't scare them. They get them gentled. You put new cattle in a new place and they don't know where the water is. They head them in the right direction."

There's a newer breed of ranch hand now, such as 20-year-old Leroy Lerma Jr., who wears sneakers, plays heavy-metal music on his guitar and eschews a cowboy hat for a baseball cap.

The tattooed Lerma is one of the youngest cowboys on the ranch, and he doesn't see a future in this; with a high school diploma in hand, he hopes to attend college to study architecture. But he sees a quiet strength in these cowboys that appeals to him.

Israel "Rey" Mendietta and Javier de la Cruz, both 70, look after Salazar, picking him up in the morning from a house in tiny Sarita that the ranch provides rent-free.

Salazar, whose wife died of breast cancer at age 47, lives with his daughter, Vengie Salazar, a teacher's assistant.

Vengie is one of four Salazar children.

"We really didn't see much of him," she said. "Back then, they'd leave really early in the morning and come back really late at night."

Salazar used to ride at the ready like his pals, with one hand through the reins, the other free primed to reach for a rope, gate or tree branch.

But this day, riding a horse he knew only as "the mare, nothing more," he held onto the back of the saddle with what would have been his free hand to stay balanced. The hand that was looped through the reins was locked stiff and flat with age, fingers unbent. No longer can he form a tight fist.

Salazar walked the horse, never ran, apparently because of a lesson he learned years ago.

"The boss gets mad," Salazar said. "He says, 'What's the point of running them?"'

Circling behind seven brown heifers, Salazar shooed the animals toward water.

"Haaaah," he grunted softly.

Salazar doesn't speak much, and when he does, his words come in Spanish.

As his father did before him, Salazar has worked the same sandy land since he was a boy. The ranch, near a pinch of a town called Mifflin, lies along U.S. 77.

"The ranch might change supervisors or owners, but he's been here," said Juan Cuevas, an accountant for the ranch. "In other words, he goes with the ranch."

Jaime Peace, director of the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, said there are fewer and fewer old veterans. Those who keep working do so to stay young.

"If they are true cowboys, they are relentless," Peace said.

"They will continue to do that until they have their cowboy funeral."

Or, perhaps, an incapacitating injury. A lame knee finally forced Salazar's rival, Paulino Silguero of Riviera, to face reality at age 87.

For years, Silguero lived and worked on the ranch all but four days a month. Now he's home full time with his wife of 68 years, Mercedes, who's quick to laugh and give her husband a hard time.

Both she and her husband were born on the King Ranch. Neither had much formal education.

"I want to ride a horse, but I can't do it," he said, sitting on the couch in reach of a cane. "She's fussy."

"Salazar beat him," Mercedes said.

"Ah," Paulino protested, "he doesn't work."

Indeed, Salazar doesn't work nearly as hard as he used to. But it's not all about the work, anyway. It never was.

The old ranch hands, several past retirement age, gather together early each morning for coffee and camaraderie.

Then the fog lifts and another workday begins.

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