Cutting, Outside the Pen
Buster Welch’s life could have been a disaster. His mother died when he was but a few weeks old. His father remarried, combining his brood of eight with his wife’s two and then had two more. The family struggled through the Depression and the war years. His dad went broke in the cattle business, then made a working man’s wage riding pipeline for the Atlantic Tank Farm.
Buster himself was a wild colt – headstrong and rebellious. He dropped out of school and ran away from home when he was but 14. Had Buster been born in New York City rather than in West Texas, he may have been just another social casualty. Instead, he grew up to become one of the most celebrated horsemen and cattlemen of the 20th century.
Some years ago, his longtime friend, Bud Wellman, a Texas history professor at Jarvis Christian College, wrote a 150-page manuscript chronicling his exploits. After reading it, Welch dismissed it as “just a bunch of bragging.”Wellman, however, was not insulted. He’d worked for Welch, lived on his ranch, bird-dogged him everywhere, and back-tracked to all the places he’d been. Wellman knew that when it came to Buster, it was hard to exaggerate.
Welch is the Paul Bunyan of the cowboy world – bigger than life and every bit as entertaining – with one central difference. Most of the Buster stories are true. Yet Wellman also understood that Welch is a private man – a person who prefers to be the spinner of tales rather than the central character in someone else’s story.
Buster was born near Sterling City, Texas, on May 23, 1928, the youngest of eight children. After his mother died, his grandparents, Bud and Elizabeth Welch, stepped in to rear him, doting on him as only grandparents can.
His granddad was a Mills County sheriff and deputy sheriff for nearly 20 years – swapping roles with a fellow officer because of four-year term limits. Bud was also a stock farmer, so Buster was raised around horses and cattle.
When his dad, Charles, remarried and settled in Midland, Buster returned to the clan. Yet he never quite settled in. After all that solitary attention, being one of 12 children didn’t suit. At age 14, Buster stole away in the night on a broncy gelding named Handsome Harry.
He rode 45 miles to Foy and Leonard Proctor’s ranch southwest of Midland. Foy didn’t think twice about hiring him. It was 1942 and the country was engaged in World War II. Men were in short supply. Buster had visions of being a cowboy, but in the beginning, he was given menial tasks.
“I was more of a flunkie than anything else,” Buster recalled. “People used to talk about the energy shortage back in the ’70s. Heck, they didn’t know what an energy shortage was. I was 16 before I ever knew my name wasn’t ‘Get Wood.’ ”
His greatest education came while holding the cuts as Foy and Leonard worked the herd. It fueled a desire. One day, he wanted to be the one making those cuts. He realized that the success or failure of a ranch depended on those decisions.
“I studied Foy and Leonard,” Buster recalled. “They had gone to college, which was unusual, and I knew they were smart. They were also real good horsemen and good cowmen. They had a quiet way of riding horses. They knew when to ride up and they knew when to pull up. Their horses didn’t chase the cattle, they handled ’em.”