Knowing the ropes

Books | A cowboy’s tool for tricks and plying his trade
by John R. Erickson
Posted 9/21/19, 09:21 am

John Erickson doesn’t write parables, but some of his stories about the cowboy life he once lived would work well in church. The Bible refers to us as sheep, sometimes without a shepherd, but we also act like cattle and anger the Owner of the ranch. In 1982, Erickson, the author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series of books, published a bunch of these stories in The Devil in Texas and Other Cowboy Tales. In July and August, with permission, we republished tales from that volume, and this month, we share two more. Look for more next month as part of our Saturday Series. —Marvin Olasky

Roping Fools

Years ago, Will Rogers made a classic movie called The Ropin’ Fool. I’ve never seen it but I read about it in Frank Dean’s book, Will Rogers Rope Tricks.

I glanced through the book one day after lunch. It was lying around the ranch house and I picked it up. High Loper, my cowboy partner, had ordered it from Western Horseman.

The first thing I noticed was that the pages had little water stains on them. The stains got bigger toward the end of the book. High Loper was snoring away on his cot, catching a few winks before we hit the saddles again. I kicked him awake.

“Hey, what happened to your new book? It’s got water stains on it.”

He cracked one eye. It rolled around like a snooker ball in the corner pocket, then focused on me. “Have you read it yet?” I said no. “Read it. You’ll see.”

I started reading and couldn’t quit. I missed my nap, and by the time I reached the end, I was weeping. That’s where the water stains had come from: High Loper’s tears.

We pulled on our coats and staggered out into the Panhandle cold, through the yard gate and past Loper’s roping dummy. It had a busted leg where Loper had run over it with his pickup. We’ve had several dummies go lame that way.

Loper picked up his rope and built a loop. “Want to play a quick game of Horse?” He’d beat me the day before with a hoolihan from the left side. The hoolihan ain’t my long suit.

“Nope. I’ve decided that roping’s a vice and I’m going to give it up. I’m going to cut my rope into five pieces and throw it in the dump. I never want to see another rope.”

He pitched his loop on the dummy’s head and dallied in the air. “Was it the Will Rogers book?” I said it was. “I know how you feel.”

We walked down to the corral. The wind was kicking up dust and sand. “You know, Loper, I always had a warm feeling about Will Rogers until I read that book.”

“Me too.”

“I thought he was one of us, just a common cowboy, a good old boy.”

“Yeah, and a humorist. But that book wasn’t funny.”

“No Sir. I wish you hadn’t ordered it.”

“Me too. It was a mistake.”

“You know, Loper, I always had a warm feeling about Will Rogers until I read that book.”

I opened the saddle shed door and went inside, stumbled over the cat and kicked a can of neat’s-foot oil. “Out of the way, cat. Hey, where’s my bridle? Where’s my saddle? Somebody stole all my riggin’!”

Loper was leaning against the side of the door, picking his teeth. “It’s on your horse. He’s in the side lot where you left him.”

“Oh. I guess my mind was somewhere else.”

“Will Rogers?”

“Yeah, Will Rogers, dang him. I never dreamed he was such a smart aleck.”

“They always said he was America’s ambassador of good will.”

“That’s what they said.” I took a bite off my plug of Bloodhound. “You know what really made me sick in that book? The picture where he threw an ocean wave that went around the back of a horse, came around the other side, and throat-latched him. And the horse was running.”

Loper nodded. “How about the one where he threw three ropes and caught the head, forefeet, and the rider?”

“Yeah, and the one where he caught the head and forefeet in one loop.”

“And roped a mouse with a piece of string.”

“Don’t say any more, I can’t stand it. Loper, that book just broke my heart. Think of all the hours and years we’ve spent practicing on the dummy and roping out in the pasture, and all we can do is catch heads and heels.”

“And sometimes we miss at that.”

“I used to think I was a roper. I was a happy, normal cowboy who could strut around town and grin at all the people who didn’t know a hock shot from a horn string. I was proud, I was content. I didn’t want to be president of General Motors, just a good, honest, one-loop cowboy. Then you had to go and buy that danged Will Rogers book.”

High Loper squinted against a blast of dust. “It’s an awful feeling, being humble. I guess we ain’t used to it.”

“How can we ever hold our heads up again? How can we ever swing another loop, knowing all the things we can’t do with it? I tell you, Loper, I’m a sick man. I need to go home and go to bed.”

“Boss wouldn’t be too proud if you did. I don’t think he’d understand.” We was quiet for a minute or two, each of us lost in our own sorrow. Then Loper cocked his head. “Say, do you reckon a man—I mean a normal man like me or you—could ever learn to rope a mouse with a piece of string?”

“I don’t know. We’ve got plenty of practice stock in the feed barn, but they’re awful quick to run.”

“It’s an awful feeling, being humble. I guess we ain’t used to it.”

The cat was rubbing up against Loper’s leg. “Well, do you reckon a man could ever learn to rope a cat with a pigging string?”

I looked at him. He had a big grin on his face. “A man sure might.” We ran to our horses in the side lot and jerked down our pigging strings. We loaded up and went looking for Pete. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty, nice kitty, here kitty.”

The fool came, purring and rubbing up against the corner of the saddle shed. Loper got there first, swung, and let her rip. It went straight to the mark but old Pete hissed and ran through the loop.

Pete took off running and I was right behind him, chaps a-flapping and spurs a-jingling. High Loper was behind me, loading up for another shot.

We chased the son of a gun through the front lot, through the sick pen, out into the horse pasture, through a barbed wire fence, and out in front of the corrals. We blasted away but couldn’t get him caught.

Then High Loper nailed him and we both let out cowboy yells, while Petie Pie squirmed and hissed. “Heel him!” said Loper.

I didn’t know whether you could heel a cat or not, but I moved in for a throw. I had just laid down a beautiful trap when I heard a voice behind me.

“You boys having a good time?”

It was the boss. He was leaning up against the corral fence, had his arms crossed, and was kind of tapping his toe. He’d snuck up on us and seen the whole thing.

He cleared his throat. “If you boys can work it into your schedule, I’d like to get those steers gathered off Cottonwood Creek. But if you’re too busy …”

“No, no, we can …” Loper un-noosed the cat and rolled up his string “We just …”

“You see,” I said, “we read this …”

There are some things you just can’t explain to the boss.

There are some things you just can’t explain to the boss. We got ahorseback and headed for Cottonwood Creek. When we were alone, we looked at each other and grinned.

“I feel better,” said Loper.

“Me too. Ain’t it great to be a roping fool?”

“Will Rogers is okay.”

Illustration by Gerald L. Holmes Illustration by Gerald L. Holmes

My New Grass Rope

By the time I came of age and learned how to rope, the old grass rope had just about passed into history. And for good reason. The nylon was a better tool. It was stronger, it held its shape better in all kinds of weather, and you didn’t have to wax it or soak it in the stock tank to get the figure-eights out of it.

I ran into a few old-timers who still packed a grass rope, usually tied to an old bronc saddle with a high cantle and a big swell and a tiny horn. You could tell at a distance that it was a grass rope because it appeared that it was still squirming, like a snake with its head cut off.

One day in 1979 I was in Stockman’s Supply, killing time and messing with a new shipment of ropes they had just gotten in. I played around with a couple of nylons and a poly, and then I saw this grass rope hanging on a peg. It was orange in color and about twenty-five feet long. The guy who ran the store told me that this style of rope was a favorite with some calf ropers.

I’d never used a grass rope, so I took it down and swung it around several times. It sure didn’t have the same feel as my medium lay nylon. It was a heavy rope, yet limp. The price was fifteen bucks.

I just happened to have fifteen bucks in my pocket. I don’t remember why. It was unusual for me to be walking around with such a big wad of cash in my jeans.

One reason I didn’t carry much cash was that by the time the bill collectors got through with me, I was usually down to Coke and chew change, just enough to make a jingle in my pocket.

The other reason I didn’t carry much money was that I had a bad habit of taking it into Stockman’s and blowing it on a new catch rope. I know that a man can’t use but one rope at a time, but when an ordinary mortal cowboy wanders into Stockman’s and gets in the middle of all those new ropes, something happens to his better judgment.

As old Sandy Hagar used to say, “If you put a dollar bill in one pocket and a wildcat in the other it’s hard to predict which one will get out first.” With me in Stockman’s a wildcat wouldn’t have a chance.

I bought the derned rope and got out of there before I could stray over into the boot section. Buying ropes is bad enough. Craving new boots is plumb dangerous,

When I got down to the ranch, I went straight to the roping dummy and started throwing my new grass rope. At first it felt too heavy, and I didn’t care for the action of the loop when it went around the head. But I kept playing with it, and after a while I decided that it was all right. I could see why calf ropers liked this kind of rope, because if you put the loop in the right place, it didn’t walk around. It stayed there.

I tied it onto my horn string and hung my nylon on the wall. Next time I got into an argument with a steer, I’d give her a test under pasture conditions and see how she worked.

Next time I got into an argument with a steer, I’d give her a test under pasture conditions and see how she worked.

Several days later I was riding through a bunch of new steers in the home pasture. It was a gray, cloudy day, and there was a little nip in the wind. I came up one short on my count and started prowling the holes and hollows along the creek, looking for a sick one.

I found him on the east end of the pasture, over by Parnell’s water gap. He was off by himself, standing in creek water up to his knees, a sign that he had a fever. His ears were drooped and his eyes had a sad, hollow look that reminded me of what I see in the mirror some mornings.

I bellered at him and gave him a few choice words, but he didn’t want to leave the water. I rode in and stirred him out. Just in case he didn’t want to leave, I had my new grass rope loaded.

I got behind him and drove him toward the corral. I could tell he didn’t want to go because he kept looking toward the creek and trying to break back. As sick as he was, I sure didn’t want him to get back into the water.

We were within about two hundred yards of the pens when he made a run for the creek, and this time I couldn’t turn him. He started running down the north bank, and I followed him. He’d had his chance to go peacefully, and he was fixing to meet the long arm of the law—my new grass rope.

The north bank was steep at this point, and the creek was narrow and deep. There was just enough room on that high bank for a horse to walk, and the farther we went, the narrower the path became. Finally the old steer ran out of path. There was a high bank on the right and a four-foot drop into the water on the left.

I crowded him and he tried to crawl the bank. He couldn’t quite make it and fell into the water. His head went under and he came up swimming. That was a pretty deep hole.

“Serves you right, you old fool,” I told him.

Now I had to figure a way to get myself out. There wasn’t enough room to turn my mare. So I started backing her out. Her left rear hoof broke off a piece of the bank and we went over backwards into the hole. I had just enough time to kick out of the stirrups before we hit the water with a big kersplash.

It was a Baptist kind of spill (total immersion) and I went in deep enough to float my Resistol. I got everything gathered up and staggered out on the south bank. I had gone in weighing a hundred and seventy pounds and came out weighing about two-forty.

I was soaked and cold, but my mainest problem was that my high-topped Noconas were filled with water. I’d never been able to get them off without a boot jack. And I sure couldn’t get them off now, with a wet sock and suction and all. So I laid down on my back and raised my feet over my head and let the water drain down my legs.

I had gone in weighing a hundred and seventy pounds and came out weighing about two-forty.

I climbed back on my mare, poked her with the spurs, and went after the steer. After he’d gotten me baptized, I was going to stick a rope on him whether he needed it or not. I found him about fifty yards down the creek. I still had my loop built.

But I noticed that something was different. My new grass rope had changed. The loop weighed about five pounds and it felt like a chunk of half-inch cable. If a man needed to rope anything smaller than a locomotive, he probably wouldn’t get his slack pulled up in time to make a catch. And heaving the derned thing, he’d run some risk of throwing his shoulder out of socket.

The steer got off easy. I had to pen him in the conventional manner, and then I ran to the house for dry clothes.

Well, I still hadn’t tested out my new rope, and there was no way I could use it until it dried out and softened up. I left it behind the seat of the pickup and figured I’d check it in a week or so.

Several days later, my boss tried to pull a five-section harrow through a gate that was about four harrow-sections wide. To get it through, he had to pull one end back and the other end forward, and then take it longways through the gate.

We usually carried an old junk rope behind the seat of the pickup, so he reached back there and pulled it out. He hooked it onto the harrow and pulled it around with the pickup. It worked fine, except that the old junk rope broke in half. And it wasn’t a junk rope. It was my new grass rope, which didn’t look so new after I’d taken it swimming.

The boss regretted his mistake and paid me fifteen bucks for a new rope, but the bill collectors got it before I could make it back down to Stockman’s.

Today, a year and a half after I bought it, my new grass rope is hanging on a nail in the saddle shed. It had dried out and regained its nice shape, but it’s only ten feet long and a little frayed on the bitter end.

I still haven’t roped any livestock with a grass rope, and I guess I never will. But it hasn’t been a total loss and I’ve learned a few things about grass ropes: don’t use them to pull farm machinery and don’t take them into the bathtub with you.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Tue, 09/24/2019 04:59 pm

    And thanks to Mr. Erickson, I’ve learned a few things too.