Used to Be a Cowboy…

Horse,

Saddle,

Saddle blanket,

Bridle.

Oh and a brush to quickly comb the horse’s back before placing the saddle. When I lived on the ranch I could do all of this in about 10 minutes. That includes catching the horse. You had to be quick on the ranch. Ready for things that randomly happen. If a fence is low a cow will jump over it. If a fence is weak a cow will plow right through it. The threshold for pain is amazing.  We spent many a summer in sweltering 100 degree Texas heat meticulously fixing every inch of 1500 acres of fence line. Riding our horses up and down the fences daily. Always on the lookout for compromise.

East Texas winters are harsh and always bring lots of rain, ice and even snow. Catching 1500 pound cows in freezing rain can be a deadly disaster. This happened to us one early evening right around dusk when dad saw some cows break through the fence surrounding one of our lakes. When the weather dipped below freezing we would often keep the herd away in favor of heated water troughs. It was 5 degrees below zero that evening and the frozen rain felt like daggers on our skin as we stepped away from the house and into the truck. Dad and I could barely hear each other talking because the ice was raining down so hard. We soon realized we had to do this on foot as it was going to be impossible to do it with a truck or a horse. We wrapped up with our cattleman’s coats and pulled a poncho over that and our old felt cowboy hats we each had for situations such as this. At first it was damn near impossible to not fall over from the weight of the frozen ice dropping on us and slipping on what was on the ground. We soon learned to maneuver by spreading our legs a little wider when we walked. Balancing our shoulders and arms in a triangular fashion to withstand the weight of the ice pouring down on us. Dad had a large heavy-duty spotlight that normally would shine 50 feet, but tonight it was less than 5. We could barley see from all the ice coming down. We made our way to the pasture gate and I had to pull my glove off to unhook the latch, which was frozen solid. Dad remembered to bring a hammer and I beat on the latch until it broke free. By this time I couldn’t feel my hand or the hammer in my hand and was barely able to get my glove back on. We found the cows under a small grove of trees and proceeded cautiously. They were scared so we turned off the light, which then caused the cows to spook and scatter. The smart ones left the pasture, but two cows darted for the lake. We tried to run after them but pretty soon we heard the sound of hooves on ice. One cow stopped, realizing the herd had gone the opposite direction, turned toward us and ran. We had to move out of the way to let her pass.  The other cow moved farther across the lake.  You could hear the ice creak and moan from the weight of each hoof beating down on it. The cow finally sensed something was wrong and stopped. The creaking sound reach a fever pitch before it snapped and water started rushing in. The animal fought, kicking the ice and clawing at it desperately trying to dig itself out of the hole it had created. Her breathing was heavy as she bellowed out for help in a crazed adrenaline fueled frenzy. Pretty soon the bellowing sounds began to lose intensity and her pitch changed to a muffled whine. Her breathing began to slow as hypothermia set in. Slower and slower her breathe became weaker and then one last burst of energy to fight with the ice before the breathing stopped abruptly. We hung our heads in defeat. Powerless. The rain had all but stopped now and the winter silence was all that was left. Normally we would have shot the animal to put it out of its misery, but I had forgotten my pistol in the rush to save the animals.

The next morning I got up early and picked up our ranch hand Manuel, before heading down to the lake. When we got there we could see that the water had frozen around her. Her eyes frozen a solid white making her appear ghost like. Her whiskers frozen with a light dusting of snow and ice covering her back. Frozen in a state of action, her front legs plowed into the punctured ice sheet around her. I felt bad for her and wished things had been different. Manuel slid across the ice and was able to fish a small cable around her front legs, which we then tied to her head for a makeshift harness. The harness was then attached to a larger chain from the winch on the front of the tractor. I grabbed my shotgun from the cab of the tractor and shot the ice around her. After 3 blasts the ice broke and she quickly slipped below the surface. Manuel tightened the winch and slowly pulled her across the ice, the winch groaning from the strain. We left her under a small grove of trees and headed back to the house for coffee.