ALPINE, Texas -- In the early morning darkness, the activities around the B-C Ranch look pretty much like those at any other ranch in this expansive country.
Shadows move between trucks and trailers, whispers carry like full voices in the dark, and the screen door bangs like a bass drum across the prairie.
Eggs and bacon are filling the ranch house with welcoming smells, though there will be only a moment when everyone can sit and eat. The last gulp of coffee will be taken on the run. The sun is breaking over the Del Norte and Glass Mountains.
The hands are dangerously close to the unconscionable sin of ranching: They are about to burn daylight. They still have to load feed for the cattle, hook up trailers and gather the saddles and bridles for the horses.
But it's not until the West Texas sun illuminates this beautiful valley just north of town near the Big Bend country that the B-C outfit becomes distinctive.
There are no men.
No cowboys with jingling spurs, no cheeks bulging with tobacco.
The B-C Ranch is run by women, employs only women. It is time for fall roundup, and additional hands are needed. They, too, will be women.
There is no outright prejudice against men, just bad experiences. At the B-C, the cattle are handled gently. They are coaxed, not prodded, and sometimes cowboys have a hard time dealing with that.
These women don't. They have worked together for years, bound by friendship and common attitudes toward the livestock.
Charlene Atkinson, a retired Red Oak schoolteacher, comes in from her home in Odessa. Margo Lauderdale and Pat Drake, also retired teachers, drive in from Jayton.
Dellalene Baker, a veterinarian from Denison, and her assistant, Pat McCormish, travel the 600 miles from North Central Texas. J'Lynn Johnston arrives from around Whitesboro, near the Oklahoma border.
They join forces with the ranch's regular hands: owner Becky Smith, Cathy Fortenberry and Karen Waggoner. The women range in age from their 20s to their 60s. All are single, some divorced. All but Ms. Drake have been coming to the roundup for years.
As they begin herding the purebred Herefords toward the pens on the 5,000-acre ranch, the long hair dangling beneath some of the riders' straw hats is the only visible mark of gender.
Today, they are cowhands first and women second.
It has been that way on the B-C for the past 12 years, since Perry Cartwright turned the roundup chores over to Ms. Smith.
Mr. Cartwright and his family started the ranch near the turn of the century. He and his father came to the area in the late 1890s, the 62-year-old Ms. Smith says. They camped out all over the country, looking for the best place to settle.
Eventually, after carefully judging the grass and the local rainfall, they settled on the site that now sits on the border of Alpine's city limits.
Mr. Cartwright died in 1981. He was 91.
"He left me the ranch," Ms. Smith says. "I went to work for him in the 1970s and he taught me everything he knew. Being a registered nurse, I quickly found out that when the calving is taking place, they go through the same stages of labor that women do; that was a help. But as far as management -- how to choose the bulls, how to select the keeper heifers for your own replacements, what grasses we had, how to care for the windmills and that kind of thing -- all of that came from him."
Ms. Smith began her career as a nurse in Alabama and went into the Air Force Nurse Corps in 1955. After the service, she entered preveterinary studies at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. She says: "I came down with something God-awful and had to drop out. My health wasn't good and I couldn't take it."
She had visited Alpine, liked it and decided to move there.
She worked at the hospital for a while and then moved to the Alpine Veterinary Clinic, where she eventually met Mr. Cartwright.
"Our friendship began when he gave me a doggie calf (one whose mother isn't giving enough milk)," she remembers. "It was 1967, and before it was over he had given me eight. He told me later that he was impressed with the way I took care of them.
"He was fantastic. I wish you could have met him. Instead of a cowboy, he was a cowman."
Ms. Smith went to work for Mr. Cartwright. He also hired Ms. Fortenberry. In 1981, he asked them whether they could handle the roundup by themselves.
"He saw how gentle we were with the cattle," Ms. Smith says. "He didn't like the way they had been handled by previous people -- and I'm not going to mention any names -- he didn't like the way they were being hit with 2-by-4s to get them to go in the chutes, and hit with hot-shots every time you turned around.
"He was a very gentle man, and a compassionate man. He upped and asked me one day -- he was 90 years old -- he said, Becky, do you think you and Cathy can get enough people together and do the roundup yourselves this year?'
"I told him I thought I could. I'd just have to try. That's how this all started. I got on the phone and started calling all the friends I had known."
Over the years, 15 or so women have traveled to Alpine to work on the roundup. Some come twice a year, for spring and fall roundups; others come when they can.
They kid with one another as they work, the kind of good-hearted jabbing common among cowhands. On the first morning, Ms. Atkinson, who goes by "Charlie," inspects the horse she is to ride. It's a small sorrel borrowed from a nearby ranch.
"You wouldn't believe what they told me about this horse," she says. "They told me the last man to ride it was 95 years old, and after I finished with it, they were going to put it to sleep, it was so old."
The sorrel was anything but decrepit; its spirits were certainly high enough when Ms. Atkinson put the saddle blankets on. The others watched with devilish smiles, but Ms. Atkinson soon calmed the excited animal and rode off without incident.
There are four horseback riders through most of the roundup. The B-C is not a particularly big ranch by local standards. It is evenly divided, with four sections (2,560 acres) on the east side of Texas 118 -- the road to Fort Davis -- and four sections on the west.
The east pasture is rolling hills of native bluestem and grama grasses. The west pasture is flatter, with mesquite and cat claw. Both are accessible by truck, and it is from the ranch pickup that Ms. Smith acts as the trail boss.
"If you all get up there and spook 'em, I'm going to whip you," she hollers as two of the women walk up a nearby hill to look for cattle. They back off slowly.
Ms. Smith can laugh and joke as quickly as any of them, but when it comes to her cattle, she is nearly dictatorial. She wants them worked one way: gently. That's the only way she will abide.
"Back in 1985, Cathy had to have major back surgery," she says, "and I had to have some help. There's all kinds of cowboys around here, all you'd want to hire. Perry never would hire them, and the first time I was on a roundup on somebody else's ranch I saw why.
"It was get out there and whoop and holler, sling ropes, whip and spur, run them. You're asking for your cattle to lay down and die before you get them to the pen.
"But I needed help, and I hired a cowboy. It didn't work out," Ms. Smith says.
"When I interviewed him, I asked him if he could take orders from a woman and he said he could. But every time I sent him out to do a job, I'd go check it, and instead of doing it the way I told him to do it, my way, he did it his way. . . . When Cathy got back on her feet, I fired him."
There are no disagreements on this drive. The women share the same philosophy about working the cattle. They can call some of the cows by name. They urge them on quietly.
The cattle are penned. There are 200 head from the west pasture, 160 from the east. The first-year heifers, those expecting their first calves, are split off the main herd and driven into chutes to be pregnancy-tested, vaccinated and wormed.
The next morning, calves are separated from the cows and heifers split from the steers. Ms. Smith watches closely so she can select a few heifers to replace some of her aging cows.
It is an important part of the roundup, because Ms. Smith is insistent on keeping her herd pure, healthy and productive. She steadfastly refuses to crossbreed any of her cattle.
"Perry had the Herefords, and he sold me on not crossbreeding," she says. "I won't do it. These cattle are gentle, and they know us. If you start crossbreeding or bringing in all Angus, or all Brahman or all something else, then you're asking for wilder cattle for women to handle."
With bandannas over their faces to block out the heavy dust, the women continue separating the calves. They are in a hurry because the buyer is expected at any time.
About two hours after they began, he arrives, and they are ready. In less than two full working days, they have gathered the cattle and prepared them for shipping.
When the buyer arrives, he confirms the success of Ms. Smith's methods. He contracted for her cattle back in July, and he's happy with what he's bought.
"They're the kind of cattle that will make you a living," he says.
The roundup was accomplished without incident and without accident. There wasn't an electric cattle prod on the place. There were no 2-by-4s.
"The first couple of years, it was work. It would take us four or five days to get everything done. Now it's a set schedule. It's a lot faster," Ms. Baker says at the end.
"I've been here every year; I feel very fortunate. I love it. I love working the cattle, I love the country."
As the buyer looks over his new herd, Ms. Smith walks away from the pens, wiping the dust from her face and neck with a
towel. Her crop is in, and it's a good one.
Her friends have come to help, and they are good ones, too.