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.

Jim Ainsworth is author of Go Down Looking.

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