Hat’s Memories

Dennis Webb manages the Rocker b Ranch in Barnhart, Texas. In one of those situations only understood by, but treasured by, grandsons and granddads, Dennis’ grandson Jake calls him “Hat.” In his narrative, and in his words, Dennis gives us the gift of sharing his best memories from his work as a cowboy.

It’s that time of the morning when it’s not completely dark, but it’s not light yet either. The sun is wanting to break out over the horizon, but the night is not wanting to release its hold on the darkness.  Everyone is at the corrals standing around, standing around waiting. We all know what we are waiting for. Some of the guys are smoking cigarettes. Some of them are talking to each other. Some of them are kicking rocks and dirt. Others are not doing anything, just waiting.  We all have bridles over our shoulders and ropes in our hands and that’s when you hear a sound off in the distance. You know what the sound is, you have heard it many times before, but you still strain to hear it.

It’s the bell around an old mare’s neck and you know she is leading the remuda in. You get a little excited and you break out a smile because you know what will be happening shortly. You can’t see the herd yet, but you can hear them running. You can hear that beautiful sound of horses’ hooves hitting the ground. You strain to see them, but you just cannot quite see them yet.  Then you see the dust that they are kicking up and you know it will be just a moment. Then there they are, being led in by the old mare.  Their manes and tails blow in the wind and you see the two cowboys on horseback who were sent out an hour or so earlier to jingle them in. Now you are really excited.  As they run into the corrals some of them are nipping or kicking at others, some are rearing up a bit — more playful than anything else.

Riding Out, courtesy of American Cowboy

They run around for a minute then start to settle. The cowboys stretch out their ropes and make a circle with all the horses in the middle. The wagon boss and another cowboy, usually one of the older ones, goes into the remuda and gets ready to rope horses for the crew.  Each cowboy knows which horse he wants that morning. They call out the horse’s names, “I want Trooper, let me have Baldy, I will take JoJo.”  Then the wagon boss points at you and you just say, “Waldo.”  He leads Waldo out toward you. It would be a break in etiquette to reach out to take the horse, so you just stand still until the wagon boss leads him around to you and stops. That’s when you run your bridle under his rope and around your horse’s neck and pull his rope off and hand it back to him.

Now Waldo is standing there all bug-eyed and snorting at you. “Why are you acting like this?” you ask Waldo? “You have been here many times before and besides that you are too old for this.”  So, you stroke him on the neck and rub his ears just letting him know it’s all right, it’s just time to go to work. You get Waldo saddled, take a quick look around to make sure everything is ready then you put your foot in the stirrup all the way to your boot heel. You pull yourself up and swing your leg over to the point of no return and ease down onto his back, quickly finding the other stirrup.  Waldo tenses under you so you pick up the reins and gently pull his head around toward you and move him out making four of five small circles until he starts to relax.  You walk him over and line up with the rest of the crew. There’s not much talking going on now. Everyone is anticipating what is about to take place.

Just then the wagon boss comes up horseback, stops for a moment, looks at the crew lined up making sure everyone is ready to go and then without a word he walks out of the corrals with the crew behind him in single file.  Following behind, you look up at the stars and think about your life and begin to reminisce about all the times you have seen these stars.  There was the time you and your brothers laid on the ground in your backyard camp, dreaming about being a cowboy. Another time, you looked into the heavens on a night-time fishing trip with your cousin.  You tried to impress your first girlfriend with your knowledge of the stars when you sat with her on her parent’s front porch during a summer evening.  Now you sometimes look at the same stars with your wife of 32 years and thank God for putting her into your life.

You remember the hundreds of questions your children asked about the moon, the heavens, and constellations. Now you are doing the same thing with your grandchildren, answering the same questions. Seeing the wonder in their eyes and hearing the laughter in their voices makes you feel good that you have been so blessed.  You take a moment to think about the night your dear sweet mother died, how you walked out of the hospital, looked up into the night at the stars, shed some tears, said a blessing, and then went on with your life, which is exactly what she wanted you to do. 

The wagon boss interrupts your thoughts when he says, “Let’s go,” kicking up to a long trot with the crew following his lead. You punch Waldo a bit and he takes the cue, moving forward to a trot.  You are standing up in the stirrups now leaning forward, paying attention to what’s taking place around you. In the distance you hear what sounds like a whole pack of coyotes, but you know two or three can sound like 10.  You feel the morning air on your face and smell the crisp, clean smell of the dew. You look at the men lined up in front of you sitting tall in the saddle, wild rags snapping in the breeze and you quietly think to yourself, “I am a cowboy.”

I know that for me this will coming to an end before long. Each passing day brings that time closer.  It’s hard for a man like me who has had so many blessings in life to ask God for any more, but I do pray to Him that He allows me to hold on to the sights, sounds and the smells of this ranch life that I love so much.  When I am an old man in the final years of my life, I want to be able to remember the smell of a branding fire or the sounds of bawling cows as the drive comes together. It will be a blessing to remember the sounds of cowboys whooping and hollering, telling you that was a good loop as you drag a double-hocked calf to the fire.  It will be good to remember the cowboys covered with dust going back to the wagon after a long day in the branding pens, then listening to stories from other brandings or the day’s events while having a cold beer. I want to remember turning the horses out and watching them run off after a hard day’s work, except for a couple of night horses who are now running around in the pens wishing they were turned out.

You look at the men lined up in front of you sitting tall in the saddle, wild rags snapping in the breeze and you quietly think to yourself, “I am a cowboy.”

 – Dennis Webb

I want to remember a summer thunderstorm that builds up so quickly, watching lightning and thinking about all the terror and destruction it can cause. It would be a blessing to remember how the wind felt stronger as the storm drew closer and how the temperature dropped with the storm.  I treasure the memory of a dozen cattle trucks lined up in the early morning with all their lights on ready to start loading cattle on shipping day. I welcome the sense of pride that comes from watching everyone work in unison weighing and loading cattle, knowing we have accomplished a job well in getting the cattle to this point.  I want to be able to smile when I think about the fun all the ranch employee’s and their families had at our ranch dances and Christmas Party or the excitement of new baby born to one of the families on the ranch. I want to remember our first days here in the Elbow Camp. I want to remember what it was like to come down the long hill leading to the house after being out all day in the cold and see smoke rising from the chimney, knowing it will be warm inside.

I will treasure the memory of how I hurried to unsaddle my horse and feed everything at the barn because I know Tammy is inside. I can see her looking out the kitchen window watching me walking up. I have not seen her all day and she is busy fixing supper, but when I walk in she stops just long enough to give me a hug and tell me she is happy I am home.  I spend a lot of my time now trying to collect these and many other ranch experiences in my mind. I fear that one day I will be unable to recall life on the Rocker b Ranch. I hope in the twilight of my life that someone will ask me how it was to live on a big ranch in West Texas. If they do I will tell them to have a seat because this is going to be a long story.

Originally published in the December 2018 issue of The Cattleman, the monthly magazine of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, and republished here with permission.  Learn more about the TSCRA at www.tscra.org


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