It cast a pall over the camp when the local sheriff took one of the cowboys into custody for rustling. I did not overhear much of the conversation, but it is safe to say that Tom was upset and disappointed. But it didn’t stop us from trotting back more miles to work the herd we gathered that morning and gather another one.
Shep and I more or less stood guard and handled stragglers as Tom built a fire for branding (no blow torches here). They branded and vaccinated all the calves and castrated the bull calves. Then we gathered a second herd in a small corner of the pasture (not a corral or holding pen), built a second fire, and did the same.
The cattle were held on two sides by fence, the other two by mounted cowboys. For the first time, I felt moderately useful. Tom actually signaled me to bring back in a straggler. Rowdy performed well.
As we started to gather a third herd, Tom pointed toward a fuel tank on a hill to the northwest and spoke to Shep and me. “You two head over to that tank. If they try to go past it, point ‘em north. That’s the only hole they can get through.”
As we started to climb the hill where the tank was, a cowboy rode up, hat waving. “Jackson says you’re supposed to go over to the other side of that tank.”
I nodded. “That’s where we’re going.”
He pointed a little south of the fuel tank to a body of water. “There’s the tank.” We had forgotten that pools are called tanks in West Texas. Tom had been pointing to the pool, not the fuel tank. We felt foolish again.
We gathered a third herd and drove them back to camp. The temperature had risen from thirty-one to about ninety-one and I had one of the worst headaches of my life by the time we reached camp. Fortunately, Rowdy had settled down and was behaving like a gentleman, even without the tie-down.
We stood guard for stragglers and runaways and waited for Tom to build another fire, but we only sorted this herd—no branding. We finished by about seven-thirty and had beef covered with cornbread, English peas and blackberry cobbler by the chuckwagon.
My headache left after the meal, but Shep looked a little pale when he revealed that he had forgotten to take his medicine that morning. We sat around the campfire for a while, but were soon ready for bed. We agreed this had been one of the hardest days we had ever spent horseback. I can’t be sure, but I think we trotted close to twenty miles. Not as bad as pulling bolls, but we were sore and so were our horses.
I was unrolling my bedroll when I saw two of the young cowboys from Oklahoma bent over losing their supper. I felt for them, but it made me feel not quite so old. One of their companions came over and pointed to our pickup bed. “Sir, if you have any cold beer in that cooler, I would happily pay you ten dollars for one.”
I laughed. “Sorry. No beer.”
“I would give the same amount for a cold Coke.”
“So would I.”
Gyp water and coffee were still the only liquids.
Though tired and sore, we rested well that night. The next day, our horses were sore to the point of lameness and so were we. We rode out and watched another branding and captured it on a borrowed video camera. Over dinner of roast beef, beans and corn, we visited more with Tom and Charlie the cook. Both were forthcoming about their lives, even personal matters, and we did get to meet Tom’s wife.
We left shortly after the noon meal and stopped at Guthrie ISD to thank Danny Pickering for his hospitality and for helping us to have the experience of a lifetime. We were not sure we had measured up, but we had something we could mark off our bucket lists.
We had arrived with a healthy respect for cowboys, cattlemen, and horsemen. We had dreamed of becoming all three, but circumstances and necessity had taken us in different directions. This adventure proved that Tom Moorhouse was all three, and allowed us to vividly imagine what might have been.
In the middle of chronicling our trip, I heard a sniveling, pompous, vain, ignorant politician use the term cowboy in a disparaging way, referring to a series of stupid blunders by bureaucrats as “cowboy”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wanted to take him to the cedar breaks and come back alone.
I often hear “Cowboy” bandied about in derogatory fashion. Soon after the trip I read the book Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West. With a little experience on both sides of that equation, I heartily agree with the book.
Six years after our ride with Tom, I did a lot of research about my ancestors’ coming through that part of the country as fugitives and our trip took on added meaning.
This scene is from Home Light Burning. Butter hit the cedars like a buffalo bull, creating a din of cracking and popping. Lev felt his shirtsleeves being torn and was grateful for the loan of his father’s leggings as the cedar limbs scratched along both legs. He could almost see over the tops of the cedars, but not quite—just enough to make a man feel trapped and blind.
Sound familiar? After all was said and done, I never threw my rope, never dragged a calf to the fire. It was not offered and I did not ask. But I am still grateful for the experience. Rowdy and TT? They never saw each other again.