It was while I was recovering from a broken leg I had the bright idea of riding in
a cattle roundup.
A few weeks earlier I was installing a light fixture for my mother-in-law and
literally fell victim to a cheap wooden Walmart stepladder. My foot slipped
forward on the bottom rung and I fell backwards into the kitchen floor. I thought
it was a bad sprain, and I limped around the rest of the afternoon and evening,
but the next morning there was more swelling and unabated pain, so I went to the
ER to have it checked.
"Tibial plateau fracture" was the diagnosis and I was in surgery before lunch. A
six-day hospital stay and $22,000 later I was wheelchaired through TSA and three
airports to get back home with an immobilized, fully extended left leg.
As soon as the local traumatologist would permit I began physical therapy. It sort
of reminded me of my freshman year at TCU on Elmer Brown's student trainer staff,
except this time I was the guy hurting when my leg was flexed more than five
And that's when I decided to sign on for the cattle drive.
It became a combination goal and reward, a measurable desired outcome: able to
spend all day in the saddle by mid-March. I worked and sweated and hurt and came
to appreciate Oxycodone almost as much as morphine. I was driven to be saddle-
ready, and whenever the pain was at its worst I focused on riding again.
A week before I was to fly to Texas the traumatologist said "you're good to go."
My physical therapist said I wasn't. But MD trumps RPT so I flew to Midland-
Odessa and drove to Presidio in a rented car.
The next morning I was introduced to Rojo, a dark bay gelding, my mount for the
roundup. The first day we gathered the longhorn cattle from their winter pasture,
from the rocky hillsides and patches of prickly pear and honey mesquites. There
were some veteran cow-critters with horns an impressive five feet tip-to-tip, some
younger bulls and heifers, and of course a few unbranded calves. We herded them
all to a holding pen where we ate supper and I crawled into a hot roll on the
ground for the night.
The following day we moved the herd to the branding pens at the main ranch
house. Youngsters were vaccinated, tagged and branded, and when they were released
and went bawling back to mama we noted who belonged to whom. I mugged and branded
longhorn calves, the leg was holding up fine.
On the third day we moved the cattle to their summer pasture. There was a caliche
road running through the ranch and the old stock--they'd been through this a few
times before--stuck to the road. But the younger animals, feeling adventurous I
guess, they tended to wander away from the main herd. I'd begun the morning riding
drag on Rojo, the place with the most dust and the worst view. So when I saw two
or three yearlings head off to the right I turned Rojo off the road, kicked him in
the sides a couple of times to convince him, yes, we ARE going through the brush
again, and took off in pursuit.
We caught and turned them back in toward the herd, but to keep them from running
off again Rojo and I now rode flank, through the brush and occasional dry creek
Now Rojo's background was mainly as a trail horse, and he didn't especially like
where I took him. I had to keep him away from the road where he wanted to be with
his cayuse friends. Eventually, though, the reality sunk into his little walnut
brain that I was serous and we actually made a pretty good couple of hands.
I mentioned the dry creek beds. Those were the things Rojo hated most. He'd slide
on his hocks down one bank, then pick up speed to climb up the other. We crossed
three, Rojo straining and sweating but doing an altogether good job of it. And
then we came to the fourth creek bed.
I was relaxed in the saddle, admiring the view and counting my blessings when we
came to the next creek bed, and I felt Rojo's muscles tighten under me. In one brief moment
of cowhand clairvoyance I knew what was going to happen next. I knew Rojo was not
going to slide down one side and scramble up the other. Rojo was going to jump
that creek bed.
In an instant we were airborne, Rojo's hindquarters launching us up and forward,
his forelegs landing us gracefully, safely on the other side. I had no time to
think before it was all over. I reckon I surprised Rojo as well as myself when I
hollered, "Yeehaw, Rojo, let's do that again!"
It was the shortest flight I've ever taken. Also one of the best, the one I'll
remember for always. I looked around, and evidently no one had seen the feat. It
was our secret, Rojo's and mine, a secret shared between a pretty good cow pony
and an old cowboy with a busted leg.