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The Last Cowboy

The coming day is no more than a rusty finger-width smudge on the black-on-black eastern horizon.

Inside the low-slung stable, cobwebbed bulbs cast yellow murk on timber walls. Sounds are muffled here: early morning throat-clearing, leather creaking, currycombs scrubbing yesterday's mud from sorrel flanks as drowsy horses swish tails and nicker to each other.

Zane Grey would have been right at home. So would Larry McMurtry. And so, perhaps, would you. Probably most Americans who grew up in the 20th century would feel a throb of recognition inside this old pine-poled outbuilding. In its dim, hay-sweetened air, cowboys heave Indian blankets and well-worn saddles up onto their mounts. They tug cinches, pat withers and grunt their good mornings. From their battered silverbelly hats to their businesslike spurs, the details ring true. Until one cowboy looks down at his chest, breast pocket suddenly glowing sapphire and twittering electronically. He rolls his eyes. "I ain't answerin' this." His coworkers chuckle-cowboys screen and dodge cell phone calls, too-then return to their work.

For all the familiar costumes and set dressing, Florida cowboys are not always happily home on the range. Especially these days, when the range is home to dramatically fewer of their kind than it was a century ago. And especially these cowboys, who work the up-for-grabs Babcock Ranch in Charlotte and Lee counties. Though its long-term future is anybody's guess, business on this 91,000-acre spread remains booming. It's a formidable operation that supports 5,000 head of cattle, watermelon and sod farms, eco-tours, timber, mining and just about every terrestrial endangered species in this part of the state. After patriarch Fred Babcock's 1997 death, his family and board of directors started talking about development; and the battle to get the ranch into public hands was on.

But no matter what happens, ranch foreman david milburn (whose official title is cattle manager) figures he and his full-time, four-man crew of cowboys, who all live on the ranch, will have jobs for the next three to five years, at least. Beyond that, he won't speculate, though it's hard to imagine the cinematically handsome 39-year-old as anything but a cowboy. And for now, there's plenty of work to do. This morning, he's the first to lead his horse into the long stock trailer. With chirrups and clicks, the others urge theirs inside, too. No padded loading ramps here; the horses have to clamber, clanging and banging, into the metal trailer, which is soon bumping down one of the miles of sand road outlining the quadratic mandala of 90-plus pastures and pens that grid Babcock's 143 square miles. "Someone told me that if you lay all the fence on this place end to end, you'd reach Pittsburgh," Milburn says.

Unless Pittsburgh reaches the ranch first. Those 143 square miles make the place just slightly bigger than the Gaza Strip, which is home to some 1.5 million people. Over the last decade or so, Southwest Florida's growth economy has approached the tipping point where even property as remote as Babcock is worth more developed than ranched. The most recent census of agriculture, issued last summer by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported that in the last five years, Lee and Collier counties lost more than 105,000 acres of agricultural land. Lee's population is now nearing 500,000, gaining at a rate that places it in the top 1 percent of the nation's counties, according to The News-Press. And Collier is closing in on 300,000, with projections that each will add 30,000 by next year. Sooner or later, most observers expect ranching will go the way of mullet fishing and family farming. Already, only a handful of big ranches remain in this half of the state. Not that cattle are scarce; they're still a common sight even on urban land-tax exemptions on the hoof-but large ranches are disappearing, even in what Babcock vice president Arnie Sarlo calls "the very best of cattle times," thanks to the occasional foreign mad cow and popular high-protein diets.

Sarlo, 39, is part of the Fort Myers-based family famed for its high-wheeled power mower manufacturing business. But it's a big clan, and Sarlo ranked too far down on the food chain of siblings and cousins hoping for positions there. Besides, he'd already fallen in love with cowboying, thanks to a friend from a cattle family.

"When I was eight or nine years old, we went out to work cows one weekend. We stayed in a tent on the Peace River and rode every day and that was it for me-I was done," he says. He went to college and got a degree in animal science, but also followed the rodeo circuit on the side (most professional cattlemen do, at one point). Bullriding and bareback were his events. He met his wife while he was on the circuit, and they're now raising their three kids on the ranch.

"When my daughters have their little friends out here for sleepovers, the other kids are just in awe of where we live," he says, sweeping his gaze over the vast landscape.

Though Sarlo wears the same boots and Wranglers as the other cowboys and still tries to saddle up at least once a week, he's as high-powered an executive as they come. Sarlo oversees not just the ranch, but Babcock's other divisions as well. And soon he'll have his MBA from Florida Gulf Coast University. The education shows; increasing efficiency and eliminating redundancy are paramount concerns. Genetic testing is now part of the ranch routine, as are videotaped satellite-broadcast sales. "We sell 90 percent of our cattle that way now," Sarlo says. "You can be anywhere in the United States and buy a Babcock cow."

But this morning, sarlo is here to help Milburn and the crew sort cow/calf pairs from females that are still "dry." After unloading the horses, the cowboys and Milburn's three dogs, a family of yellow black-mouthed curs (a working breed, not an insult) get ready to drive the 200-head herd pastured here into a bunch so the cowboys can do the separating. Calving season stretches from October to April; most calves are sold when they're about eight months old and weigh between 500 and 600 pounds. From the ranch, they travel to feed lots up North, where they'll more than double their weight before slaughter. The work is unrelenting; and there's no downtime in the annual cycle of breeding, calving, vetting, branding and fence-mending.

When the vehicles stop, Milburn lets out his dogs. They bound from the back of his truck and tear through the field, skidding in playful loops around clumps of salt bush and wax myrtle, visibly anxious to get going. It's their job to keep the cattle bunched to help the cowboys hold them.

The horses look eager, too, stamping and tossing their heads while the cowboys strategize. Just as most of Babcock's cowboys carry long-barreled, saddle-holstered Colt revolvers instead of plastic-frame semiautomatics (the threat of Eastern diamondbacks and marauding coyotes is very real), they use horses and dogs instead of the fat-tired ATVs favored by other ranchers. The horses are just this side of scrawny-ropy-muscled and wiry-but in human terms, they would be supremely fit marathoners, completely unlike the glossy, pumped-up specimens found in show rings with "big shiny apple-butts," Milburn snorts dismissively, "wouldn't last a day out here." Even so, they and the dogs work on a rotating schedule.

Not so the human help, Milburn notes. "We swap dogs, we change the horses; but it's always the same old cowboy, day after day." And those days stretch from dawn to dusk-"from can to can't," he says.

When it's time to ride out, Milburn whistles up the dogs, and the team takes its positions. Communicating with the animals and each other consists mainly of waves, head jerks, clicks and grunts. Soon, the cattle have been roused from their grazing and driven into a bunch that, from a distance, looks like a dark, slowly moving puddle on the vast grassland. The sun is high now, a small breeze has kicked up and feeding sparrows flicker overhead.

"The youngest one has to sit over all alone on the end and just hold 'em," says Milburn with a chuckle as 20-year-old Dusty Harbin dutifully mans his post.

These milling, lowing animals are Brangus, one of several breeds on the ranch. Brangus combine the well-marbled meat of Angus cattle with the heat tolerance and maternal instinct of the tropical Brahma. Each bears Babcock's Crescent B brand on its rump, though Sarlo says they've started using some electronic ear tags, too, micro-chipped labels that allow each cow to be scanned and read check-out line style. The cows with calves are already starting to "mammy up," says Milburn, a good sign. He and Sarlo watch a fawn-colored, liquid-eyed calf nuzzle and bump his mother's udder before settling down for a long drink.

Sarlo sighs. "You never get tired of seeing that," he says.

Then he motions to Chris Hopper, 30, who lopes over. "Gimme your horse a while," Sarlo says. "It's my turn."

Hopper obligingly dismounts, and Sarlo swings into the saddle.

"Nah, I don't mind," he says, as he watches the boss ride off. "I'm just happy to be here." Like Milburn, Hopper wasn't born to ranching; and that may have increased their ardor. The son of an Okeechobee heavy equipment operator, Hopper started at Babcock as a member of the burn team, which uses fire and heavy equipment to clear overgrowth; but he had designs on cowboying from the beginning. Sarlo saw his hunger and promoted him.

Now, he's one of the regulars, which means he makes between $7.50 and $11 an hour and gets free housing on the ranch. "But we have great benefits, too," Hopper says. "We get Blue Cross and free housing." They also get paid vacation and holidays along with hunting rights-worth about $5,000 to paying customers.

Does he have ambitions beyond cowboying? "No, not really. I like to be here, just where I am. I don't think it's in me to be a manager."

As in other professions where workers spend long hours together and lives can depend on split-second help, tradition-especially oral tradition-is strong. Story-telling, joking and elaborate but affectionate pranks are part of the fabric of their relationship. "See the holes in this hat?" Milburn asks. "Made by teeth-dog teeth, 'cause somebody sicced their dog on me, and that's all I'm going to say about that," he says, as Sarlo and Richard Tatum snicker and studiously look away.

"Yeah," Milburn says, "We give each other a hard time. If someone gets hurt, we laugh. If they get hurt real bad and die, we wait two weeks." He delivers his punch line with perfect timing; but then, he's had some practice. Since the ranch went into play, media types have been parading through, suddenly fascinated by real-Florida-at-risk. Even before that, it didn't escape the movie industry's notice: Sean Connery filmed part of Just Cause here.

Though the cowboys bear all the media attention good-naturedly, the strain sometimes shows. "One lady, she wanted me to show her how to crack a whip," Milburn says, reaching behind his head gingerly. "She tried all right-caught me right behind the ear. Damn near knocked me down." Once again, his colleagues laugh before turning back to the task at hand. One feisty cow keeps dodging, feinting and charging so unexpectedly that one cowboy is nearly unseated.

"Sure, we get bucked off," Sarlo says. "But we've got no whiners here-there's no room for it." Besides, these are men in love. "They're all passionate about this way of life," he says. "Look at Milburn-he's crazy about it. Sure, he could make more money somewhere else. They all could-in construction or heavy equipment or whatever-but they want to be here. These guys are one of the last, best parts of what's great about America."

When the cowboys have combed through most of the herd and sifted out the last few dry cows, they turn the two groups loose. The breeze has shifted; and it comes from behind the cattle now, carrying their leathery, grassy scent, spiced with crushed wax myrtle.

By the time the day winds down to "can't," the cowboys will have repeated the separation process with several hundred more head. The horses will be sweat-slick and mud-splattered, the dogs droop-tongued and panting. But the men, no matter how much exhaustion their soaked shirts suggest, will not utter a word of complaint-ever. For these cowboys, it's all in a day's work-and all they can ask from life.

Buying Babcock

A coalition of area groups, agencies and people is working to buy the Babcock Ranch and put it in the public domain. So far, more than 1,200 donors have given close to $120,000 to help buy the property. To make a tax-deductible donation, send a check to the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, 8260 College Parkway, Suite 101, Fort Myers, FL 33919. Write "Babcock Preservation Partnership Fund" on the check's memo line. The Community Foundation also accepts credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover). Call (239)274-5900.To donate online, go to www.floridacommunity.com

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