The sun is going orange as it starts setting way up yonder over the bend in Onion Creek just outside of Dripping Springs, Texas. And H.C. Carter, who schemes multimillion-dollar deals by day in Austin but who owns this spread in the country and is a cowboy in his heart, is sitting on a rock, his spurs scraping its surface, his hat tipped back. It's a scene out of Norman Rockwell, just like the Texas Longhorn is.
Carter chews a toothpick and says, "The Longhorn is truly what this country is all about. They represent what cattle used to be like—and what people used to be like."
Indeed, just letting those two words roll off your tongue—Texas Longhorns—conjures up a panoply of memories and imaginings. Of Longhorns on the great cattle drives; of their dramatic appearances at rodeos, where cowboys try to rope them and ride them with marginal success; and certainly, of those glorious horns themselves. But perhaps most vivid of all, at least for college football fans, is the image of Bevo, the Longhorn mascot that represents the University of Texas at all its home games and is the inspiration for the cry "Hook 'em, Horns!" Fred Akers, the Texas football coach, says, "I guess I better like 'em. My wife gave me a couple Longhorns for Christmas last year." The point is, there's something in the Longhorn that everyone can admire.
Back on the rock, Carter is saying that all other breeds of cattle—Hereford, Angus, Charolais and so on—are nothing but "welfare cattle, who're just like people today, used to the spoon-fed approach to living." Carter spits, then falls silent. He tosses a handful of catfish pellets into Onion Creek, troubled by his thoughts. Carter knows that, hard as he tries, he cannot give the Texas Longhorn its due.
Nobody can. Not even J. Frank Dobie, the high guru of Longhorndom, who wrote in his book The Longhorns, "They possessed an adamantine strength, an aboriginal virility, a Spartan endurance, and a fierce nobility that somehow make one associate them with Roman legions and Sioux warriors." Dobie might be guilty of understatement.
If truth be told, the Longhorn is nature's most perfect gift. Better, even, than a sunset over Onion Creek. Better than anything, insists another Texan, Red McCombs, former owner of the San Antonio Spurs and now owner of the Denver Nuggets, who has gone nuts over Longhorns. McCombs can be counted on to show up in Denver to handle Nugget business when he says he will—unless he's sidetracked by a Longhorn sale en route. "Longhorns and basketball are both exciting," he says. "Both are full of surprises. But Longhorns don't demand no-cut contracts and first-class plane travel."
That's the point. Longhorns don't demand anything. If man takes care of a Longhorn, the Longhorn does fine; if man doesn't take care of a Longhorn, the Longhorn does fine. Doesn't matter. The Longhorn is absolutely, totally, wonderfully and irrevocably independent of us. After all, this is an animal so clever that it can make it through a thicket that rattlesnakes have to back out of; it can survive on land so barren that you can't gather enough dirt to throw in another man's face; it flourishes when it gets so dry and hot that a cowboy's tongue is only wet on one side; and in killer blizzards on the high plains, when all else living either gives up or hides, the Longhorn just turns its back and keeps on keeping on.
The Longhorn epic started on Columbus' second voyage to the New World, in 1493. He brought some Spanish Andalusian horned cattle (no relation to the famed fighting bulls) with him and put them ashore in Santo Domingo. In 1521, another explorer, Gregorio de Villalobos, brought a few of the cattle from Santo Domingo to Mexico, and in 1690, about 200 head were driven north to the mission at San Francisco de los Tejas, in an area that later became part of Texas.
In this tough environment the Andalusian cattle evolved into the incredible Texas Longhorn. Indeed, ranches and missions were hard put to survive, but the Longhorn went on to form the base for the entire Western cattle industry. The Longhorn succeeded because it was left to develop on its own and in the wild in the extremes of that climate. "Had they been registered and regulated, restrained and provided for by man," Dobie wrote, "they would not have been what they were." Among the Longhorns, only the strongest survived. Because of the innate qualities that allow them to hang tough in hard times, Stewart H. Fowler, head of the agriculture department at Berry College in Georgia and one of the foremost Longhorn experts, calls them a "genetic gold mine."
Despite this, man has tried to breed the Longhorn out of existence (too skinny, the beef ranchers say, and the horns get in the way); man has tried to slaughter the Longhorn out of existence (in 1865, there were 25 million, but by the early 1920s, perhaps only 1,000 were left, far fewer than the number of buffalo); man has tried to ridicule it out of existence (too tall, too lanky, meat's too dry, too slow to mature and gain weight, just a fad, crazy, uncontrollable).