Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Last Roundup Part Five/Riding the Breaks

After being warned about the dangers of tie-downs in the country we were headed for, I removed the one I had used on Rowdy for five years while we team roped. I have never been a fan of tie-downs, but almost all roping horses wear them. And once a horse gets used to one, he doesn't know how to behave without it.

We mounted and quickly broke into the same long trot that the other horses were in. Now, a long trot is not the most comfortable for the rider, but you get used to it and it is a good way to “untrack” a horse and get him limbered up. It’s good for their legs. Riders just do what I call a West Texas Post (not the same as the English style of posting). An observer can barely tell when a West Texas rider is posting. We stayed in a long trot for about four miles.

Rowdy tested the new freedom he had without the tie-down by slinging his head as he tried to get closer to TT. I was irritated when he seemed to think he was in charge instead of me.

We slowed to a walk as we reached the cedar breaks (sometimes called a mott), and I had time to really observe the country we were in. Rugged is probably overused, but it fits. Beautiful but harsh.

I had seen cedar breaks from a distance, but had never ridden in them. Again, there were few instructions. I saw no cattle as we entered the breaks. The terrain was hilly and rocky and a man riding horseback can only see a few feet. The trees are just tall enough to block your vision. And a horseback man disappears in a matter of seconds.

I did not realize until six years later that it was country like this that allowed my great-grandfather to remain a fugitive for almost five years, always seeing his Home Light Burning, but unable go home. Mary Ann was surprised when Alfred came out of the barn and ran after his father. She caught him and held his arms as Lev rode into the cedars, disappearing a little with each step. In two of little Alfred’s deep breaths, his father was gone, a ghost once again.

Jackson told Shep and me to stay with him until we reached the top of the hill. I was pleased when Rowdy straddled the smaller cedar trees and plowed over them like he had worked in them all his life. I still had not realized that he would have run through a barn wall to get close to TT.  

I was just starting to relax when he stopped. I looked down and a tree limb had managed to get inside the girth strap that I had left too loose.   

We were not exactly on a mountaintop, but there was a steep incline on the side where the limb was caught and it was loose, rocky ground. As I dismounted, Rowdy was highly anxious because TT was leaving his sight—along with all the other riders. I slid backward on the loose rock a few times as I tried to hold him still long enough to loosen the flank girth. They were all out of sight by the time I freed the limb. 

I could hear the stories in my head as I remounted. Ainsworth lost in cedar breaks. I couldn’t believe they were all out of sight and sound in such a short time. I rode straight ahead and finally caught up to them as they stopped at a small stream to let their horses water.

The horses had to climb at a sharp angle as we left the stream. The higher we climbed the rougher the ground got,until it seemed we were traveling on solid rock.

When TT and Shep and Jackson and his mount emerged and stood in a small clearing on solid rock, Rowdy clawed his way to his buddy, literally making sparks fly from his shoes scraping rocks. I worried about setting the woods on fire. We entered the small clearing and made the two-horse clearing accommodate three. Jackson shook his head, probably wondering why Tom had allowed us to come.

As I write this, I realize it sounds like I was just a passenger holding onto the saddle horn with both hands—the dude that Tom was concerned about. Let me try to redeem myself.

I may not be a great horseman, but I have ridden all my life. And I had ridden Rowdy for over ten years in almost every situation. His infatuation with TT and the few months he had rested from team roping seemed to have erased the memory of all that training. And there was neither room nor time for any re-training to take place. I was embarrassed and more than a little disappointed in my old friend's poor behavior.

From our high vantage point, we finally heard the yelps and whoops of the other cowboys. I still saw no cattle, but we did see trees moving, indicating that there was a herd. About sixty head finally emerged into a mesquite thicket. We went from cedars to mesquite thorns, but at least we could see where we and the cattle were going.

When the cattle were penned, we trotted back to the chuck wagon for a noon meal of fried steak, beans, corn and blackberry cobbler. The sheriff was waiting.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cowboy Rituals at Dawn

Part three left us asleep in our bedrolls after a memorable chuckwagon supper and evening around the campfire on the Parramore Ranch.

I was already awake and very cold just before dawn when I heard a young cowboy approach my bedroll. His words were stiff and formal. He gently nudged my foot inside the bedroll with his boot. “Mr. Ainsworth, sir, Mr. Moorhouse asked me to tell you that breakfast would be ready in about a half hour.” The young cowboy’s extreme etiquette made me feel a little old.

I thanked him and got up. The bracing cold hit me. By the cook fire at the chuckwagon, I learned that the temperature had plunged to just below freezing overnight. No wonder I was stiff and sore. We had fried eggs and bacon, more biscuits, and prickly pear jelly made by Tommy Sprayberry, a friendly young cowboy who took great pride in his jelly and deservedly so.

Over the lid of my tin coffee cup, I saw a burly young cowboy skipping his breakfast to ride a horse in a narrow lane between the corrals, making repeated rollbacks against the fences at full speed. The others laughed and told us the horse had thrown him the day before. They said he had something to prove. “That is, if Tom allows him to ride the horse again today.” I wondered about that “allowed” part.

As we finished our breakfast, the cowboys mentioned “horses by 6:15” as if speaking in code that we were meant to hear, but not understand. Sure enough, at six, the young men dropped their plates and utensils in the cook’s dishwater and trotted (and I do mean trotted) toward their saddles and tack.

Feeling a sense of unpreparedness and sudden urgency, Shep and I gathered up our halters and rushed to the corral. Tom and Jackson were already in the corral, ropes in hand, frowning at a spectacle that made my heart sink.

Ears pinned and teeth bared, Rowdy was circling TT in the middle of the herd, occasionally kicking up his heels as a warning to any horse that approached TT. “Whose horse is that?” Tom asked. 

I fessed up. “He’s mine.” Head ducked and face warm, I walked over to Rowdy, haltered him and led him out of the corral. He protested, but only until my jerk of the lead rope told him I meant business. Shep followed with TT. I felt like a parent does when a normally well-behaved child makes a spectacle in a restaurant. We tied them both to the trailer and returned to the corral.

We sat on the rails and watched the cowboy tradition of “choosing and catching up” the daily mounts. Each cowboy approached Tom in a pecking order we did not understand, pointed to a horse and described him (the gray roan with one back sock). Tom could either decline or consent to his requested mount. I saw no declines, including the cowboy who was thrown. He got his second chance.

When the selection was made, Tom and Jackson took turns throwing houlihan loops (a loop designed to be delivered in only one swing {usually from the ground} and meant to sort of float from high to settle around a horse’s neck).

Although the loops are meant to cause minimal disturbance, the horses still ran to the corners. I wondered why each cowboy did not just walk up and catch his mount, but this was tradition and what did I know? One has to consider the danger of being bitten or kicked if you walk into a corral full of horses that are bunched up and feeling early morning friskiness.

Mesmerized at the almost mythical daylight ceremony, we were late getting our own mounts ready. Saddles, blankets, and other tack lay haphazardly on the ground as we ran toward our horses after the last horse was roped.

There was no grooming of horses. The cowboys ran their hands over their horses’ backs and under their bellies to clean off any dirt or mud before slinging pads and saddles across them.

I dispensed with my usual brushing of Rowdy. I took pride in getting my horse saddled quickly and efficiently, but when I saw a few cowboys mount, I knew I was over-tacked.    

I quickly unbuckled my breast harness, my neck rope, and my saddlebags. I threw them in the trailer along with my bedroll. As Tom and the others rode up to our trailer, Shep and I were scrambling to get ready.

One cowboy who had paid particular attention to our every move told me, “Might want to leave that tie-down here. Saw a horse break his neck once when a limb got under one and he fell down the side of a hill.” His tone was full of condescension, but I took his advice.

Next week: Riding the breaks.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Moorhouse Part 3, Visiting with a Living Legend

My last posting left us heading for the Moorhouse ranch house for a cup of coffee with legendary Tom Moorhouse.

I don’t remember many details about the house. Only that it seemed all Texan, solid as a rock, and there was a lot of native rock. It seemed to have come out of the Texas prairie of its own accord. I saw few signs of Tom’s fame, just one photo of him on a magazine cover hanging near the kitchen.

As we moved to a small nook off the kitchen, I noticed a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life on an end table. I was in the middle of reading it at home, so we discussed it a little while he put coffee on to boil.

We wanted to show our gratitude for his allowing us to participate in the roundup and to assure him we would not get in the way. But he seemed more relaxed about the whole thing than we were and peppered us with questions faster than we could interrogate him.

He poured our cups to the brim and I took a sip of cowboy coffee like Daddy used to make. I like coffee in the mornings and occasionally on a cold night, but I can spot an all-day (in all kinds of weather) coffee drinker and Tom was one of those. Just like Uncle Arch (Shep’s dad) and Teadon (my dad). The coffee was not as bitter as I remember Daddy’s being. In fact, it was really good if you didn’t mind chewing a stray ground or two.

He shared a little history of the ranch and showed us the dugout that his ancestors had built as their first home. We could see the entrance from where we sat having coffee. Tom is justifiably proud of his father Togo and his deep connections to historic Texas ranching, but he has that Texas cowboy brand of humility about everything. 

He told us roundup preparations would begin in the afternoon on the Parramore Ranch and told us how to find it. I knew that large ranches are often made up of smaller ranches run by different managers. I assumed the area where we were going was part of the Moorhouse, but was not for sure. I think they leased the Parramore. The roundup mattered—working with Tom Moorhouse mattered—not the ranch.

Shep and I followed Tom’s directions to the Parramore (between Guthrie and Aspermont) and unloaded our horses just after noon. We saddled them and gave them some needed exercise.

We were relieved when the chuck wagon arrived (towed behind a pickup). That assured us we were in the right place. We offered to help, but the young cowboys who erected a canvas cover over the wagon had obviously done it many times.

The horse remuda, along with extra saddles and tack, arrived in a deuce-and-a-half truck soon after. About twenty head were unloaded in a corral a few yards from where our trailer was parked and our horses were tied.

Usually unperturbed by such things, Rowdy seemed disturbed by the invasion of new horses on turf he had already claimed as his own. It was not like him. He worked at his lead rope until he got enough slack to stand closer to TT.

The cook arrived in a small sedan (not the usual cowboy transportation) just as the wagon cover was finished. A dozen or so cowboys were not far behind. We were surprised to learn that the cook was a traveler who cooked for several outfits. He was young, affable and full of conversation as we helped him unload some of his utensils from the trunk of the car. He went right to work with the fire and cast iron cookware.

Tom Moorhouse arrived soon after, carrying a fairly large mattress rolled into a bedroll. I was surprised at the size of all the cowboy bedrolls. Made for comfort, but too big to tie behind a saddle.  In what seemed like only minutes, we sat down to sourdough biscuits, beans, stew, and peach cobbler. Coffee and gyp water were the only liquids.

The cowboys eyed us with friendly wariness. One could almost read the question in their eyes as they wondered how much extra trouble we were going to be. They were polite, but short on helpful information. 

We knew there was a pecking order and a cowboy code of sorts that we did not want to break.
We always hobbled our horses at night on the Brazos trip, but figured they would be just fine tied to the trailer. I knew that Rowdy had learned how to roam with hobbles and worried about him getting into something he shouldn’t. 

Tom’s head wrangler (we’ll call him Jackson because I can’t recall his name) finally told us to throw our horses in the corral the rest of the horses. “They’ll stomp around all night and keep you awake tied to that trailer.” We were relieved to have acceptance and led them into the big corral.

The rest of the evening was just about perfect. Squatted by the campfire, I asked Jackson about my old friends Calvin Peters, then manager of the Quien Sabe, and Sam Brown, working cowboy, novelist and poet. He knew both. Seems the cowboy community is closely knit, though hundreds of miles apart.

We sat around the campfire until close to bedtime, then watched other another small group of young cowboys arrive from Oklahoma. Like us, they just wanted to do a roundup with Tom. I heard one of the ranch cowboys tell the newcomers to be cocked and ready if they wanted to help with a Moorhouse roundup.

Shep slept in the trailer and I unrolled my bedroll outside. I had learned my lesson on the Brazos trip and had added a small cot mattress that could be rolled up in the bedroll and still be small enough to tie behind a saddle.

As I drifted off to sleep, we still did not know what the next day would bring. We had a lot of simple questions that we were embarrassed to ask for fear of sounding like greenhorns. Would we be away from camp the next night? What would we eat the next day and did we need to carry our own food? Did we need to take provisions to last for more than a day? Should I put my bedroll and saddlebags on the horse in the morning?
The answers were to be surprising. More next week.

"I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death." --Thomas Paine, The Crisis, No 1, 1776

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Heading for the Last Roundup: We arrive in Guthrie

On Sunday morning, April 11, 2004, Shep and I threw our gear in a pickup and trailer, loaded our horses and left for Guthrie. We had no idea where we would be camping; no idea whether we would have access to our pickup and trailer while we helped work cattle; no idea whether we would be throwing our bedrolls miles from the chuckwagon.  No matter, we had it covered. Spend one or more nights out in the brush country without access to our stuff? We could carry all the necessities horseback.

We were about an hour away from home when Shep got a call from wife Pat saying he forgot some pills he needed. Not sure what kind they were, but they were necessary. No problem. We just sat in a small café, told old stories, and waited for Shep’s daughter Trish and husband Tommy (I think it was them) to bring them. The horses were fine. We weren’t in a hurry.

We collected the pills and headed along the same trail we had traveled horseback in 1998. In Stoney, we stopped to visit with Morgan Hull, named one of the fifty best chefs in America. We had met Morgan and his parents during our Brazos trip. He wanted to cook for us, but we had stayed too long at the small café and had to be on our way.  

We pulled up in Dan and Jennie Pickering’s yard in Guthrie about five that afternoon.  Danny had left word for us to put our horses in a small corral just across the street from his house. We also learned that we were a day early for the Moorhouse roundup.

When we unloaded the horses, I examined Shep’s gelding closely for the first time. TT was a very light sorrel, almost blond, with four white stocking feet and a blaze face—a horse that stood out in a remuda. But the thing I noticed most was his feminine features. He had long eyelashes and looked as if he might be wearing makeup. The prettiest horse face I had ever seen. A mare’s face, not a gelding’s.

Rowdy, my red sorrel, dwarfed his trailer companion and seemed to have taken a proprietary interest in TT during their six hours together in the trailer. I figure they really talked a lot when we were waiting for the pills. When Rowdy put aside his hunger and thirst to let pretty TT have the first serving of feed and water, I started to wonder if my gelding was suffering from a little gender confusion. I figured he would know better by morning. 

Gary Garrett, stud manager for the four sixes (6666) and the Pickering’s neighbor, came over to introduce himself. He invited us to watch semen collection at the stallion barn the following morning on the historical ranch.

As I recall, both Jennie and Dan were attending a rodeo event to watch son Welton and had asked Sandy Burkett, their neighbor, to play host until their return. Either Jennie or Sandy (not sure which) had fixed wonderful chicken enchiladas.  Now that’s hospitality.

After the meal, we rode out to the Moorhouse Ranch to get our bearings and to see if we could find Tom. No luck. My recollection is that the Pickerings were trusting and hospitable enough to let us spend the night in their house alone. We flipped a coin for guest room or couch and I got the couch. Slept like a baby.

Next morning, we drove out to the Sixes and Gary allowed us to take a self-directed tour of ranch headquarters. Describing this ranch and its history would take another whole article (make that a book). I recalled looking at a pictorial display of ranch scenes in a magazine article a few years earlier.

Meeting Skeeter Hagler, who won a Pulitzer for those photos, was on my bucket list. Little did I know he would show up about three miles from my front door a short time later. But that’s another story.   

Gary found us a place to stand where we would not be in the way and we watched as veterinary students (all women) from A&M handled teaser mares and studs during the semen collection process.

I had witnessed controlled horse breeding in Kentucky a few years earlier and semen collection on a ranch near Commerce, but this was indescribably different and even more remarkable. We marveled at the efficiency and cool composure of the young female college students engaged in what can be a very dangerous procedure. Guess further description of the process is best left to the imagination.

We drove out to the 6666 Supply Store and wandered through the little no-frills store full of tack and basics. We stopped at the small museum at Pitchfork headquarters and Shep bought one of Bob Moorhouse’s photography books. We also visited the Tongue River Ranch headquarters (Tom now runs that ranch) before going on to Aspermont to buy horse feed, some trail snacks and some ice.

We spent another night with the Pickerings, then back out to the Moorhouse early Tuesday morning. Not a soul in sight. Just as we were starting to believe that Bob was only a legend, we saw a few horses headed for headquarters, leaving behind a cloud of dust. Tom and his horse emerged from the cloud as the horses ran across the headquarters yard into a waiting catch pen. Skeeter Hagler could have made the scene into another magazine cover.

As Tom stepped off to greet us, I couldn’t help but put myself in his boots and wonder why he had offered hospitality to two complete strangers who had the audacity to actually show up and get in his way. But he was gracious. “First, let’s go inside and get some coffee.” 

Next week: The Chuckwagon arrives.

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