There are legends and then there are legendary Texas cowboys. Many are the descendants of people who settled this state, fought the Texas Revolution, fought Apaches and Comanches and the elements that Mother Nature threw at them.
Apache Adams is one of those honest-to-goodness legendary Texas cowboys. He was born on September 11th, 1938, to a rancher and his wife who homesteaded some of the most inhospitable land in the state in the Big Bend area on our southern border. His parents had settled the land and lived in a cave and then in tents as they built their ranch. Adams was riding horses before he was walking. He’s experienced everything a cowboy can experience. He’s lost a million dollars and made a million dollars. He’s herded cattle, horses and donkeys. He married the love of his life, Joy, after knowing her for only 41 days and they’re still together 62-years later, “We proved people wrong who said that the marriage wouldn’t last.”
About 5 years ago Adams bought a ranch outside of Bronte and settled in. At 81 years old, the wrinkles and weathering on his face and hands are road maps of a life lived to the absolute fullest. From farrier to cowhand, from successful ranch owner to failed fur trader, he’s seen it all. And he still does it all, as do his children and grandchildren.
Adams’ blue eyes pierce anything he looks at. He’s looking into your soul, judging you. He won’t say that he’s judging you but he’s a man who has earned every bit of respect and he expects you to earn his respect. When Adams looks at you, you know he instantly knows whether or not you’re being 100% honest, whether or not you’re a hard worker, whether or not you’re worth his time. When he shakes your hand he can instantly tell if you’re someone who works hard or if you’re someone with a lot of B.S., and not a lot of action. His work ethic runs deeper than most anyone’s.
On this bright, west Texas morning Adams brings 3 cups out onto his back porch that sits perched atop a hill so that he can look out over his domain. One cup is for himself, one is for me and one is for Ballinger city councilman Bob McDaniel, who has set up this meeting. Adams sets the cups on the table, “I don’t know how you like your coffee. I just leave whatever is in the pot from the day before and just add to it the next morning so it’s kind of strong.” The difference between Adams’ “kind of strong coffee” and the “kind of strong coffee” you find at any number of coffee shops in the area is the same difference between a mule kicking you in the chest and a dog stepping on your foot. It makes your teeth want to curl back from your lips and gums so that they don’t have to touch the coffee as it passes to your throat. It’s cowboy coffee. Not some made up fancy name, just black cowboy coffee. No frills with it. That coffee gets down to business as quickly as Adams does. That coal black coffee is an extension of Adams himself. It’s not to be sipped as you sit back contemplating life. It’s there to wake you up and get you working.
Adams still owns horses and cattle and still sits atop his horse as they brand cattle at his ranch. He ropes the calves and drags them a short distance as a ranch hand puts his brand on them. His stories and the stories about him are more truth than fiction.
The number of horses, donkeys and mules that Adams has broken over his 81 years probably outnumbers the words printed in this story. He’s seen the Rio Grande flood and he’s lost friends working on the ranch. A Mexican cowboy friend was killed when his horse went down while they were working livestock, “He was graveyard dead when he hit the ground.” Adams notified the ranch owner and they gathered up the man’s body, his saddle and trappings and took him across the river to his home. His wife wasn’t at home when they got there so they left him there at the house with his gear and covered his body with his saddle blanket. The ranch owner left the man’s pay on top of his chest and every month after that the rancher sent money to the cowboy’s wife, “just as if he were still working.”
That’s the appreciation and respect that men who work hard and scrape for everything they’ll ever own have for each other. Bad weather doesn’t stop you because you still have to get the work done. Back in the early days of Adams’ cowboy life, in the 40s, 50s and 60s, they had to deal with screw worms. He’s roped grown bulls, heifers, steer and calves and treated them for screw worms. Then there are the goats that they also raised and that they had to care for and move to market. They moved herds of horses or donkeys for days, “We were going to be moving a group and we knew it would take about 3 days. We saddled up and my buddy and I took 3 potatoes each with us. We’d heat them up and cook them in the morning and eat one potato each day. We packed light. We got the animals in a box canyon and we threw our bedrolls down and camped at the entrance to keep them from getting out during the night.”
That is one of more than a hundred stories about Adams. His children have been champion ropers, as have his grandchildren. Joy was a great horsewoman, “She was great on cutting horses, one of the best there ever was.” These days Joy spends most of her time inside due to an illness. As Adams and I drive the ranch together he tells me, “There’s only one thing that I want to do every day. That is to take care of that woman in there because of all that she has ever done for me. I owe it to her.” The legendary cowboy with the love of his life, the motivation for much that he has done. Joy is the woman who has been at his side, making her own way along with him. It’s a fitting romance for the cowboy way that Adams has followed his entire life.
He has also had his experiences with injuries. His right femur has been shattered, “I was riding a horse and we went over this drop of about 8’ and he went down. When we fell, he shattered my femur.” But that’s just the beginning of the story. The rest of the story is that he ended up lying in a bed of fire ants. He didn’t want to be moved so he told the other cowboys to just leave him there and go get the ranch owner. He asked for a mesquite root to chew on while he laid there and waited. It took about 2 hours for them to get the truck to him.
There is the fur trading business he tried his hand at, “I bought all of the furs I could find while I was down on the border. I was going to take them up to Seattle and make some money on them. Well, after we had all of these furs together, we flew up there with them and we didn’t get back what we had put into them. I lost a million dollars, literally. It took me 10 years to pay back that money I lost but I paid every dime of it back.”
In another incident, about 10 years ago, when he was in his early 70s, he was injured while roping. His horse went down and it broke his pelvis. He has screws that hold his pelvis together to go with the plates and screws that hold that femur together.
Adams has the hardware to go along with the dedication, evidence to his cowboy life. He’s got the buckles, the plaques and the statues from roping championships and other cowboy events. He’s in the Big Bend Cowboy Hall of Fame. It’s an honor that he earned through his dedication and hard work, an honor that he still earns every day when he wakes up before the sun peaks over the horizon and goes to bed long after the sun has disappeared.
There are more experiences and stories than will fit in the confines of this newspaper article. There will be stories of his life and adventures in future issues of the paper, the only way to properly tell the story of Apache Adams.