Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: A Will James Moment
The cowboy novels of Will James hold a special place in my memories of growing up. “Smokey,” “Big Enough,” “Sand,” and “The Lone Cowboy” were a few of my favorites. The stories were exciting and realistic, written by a cowboy who could capture the imagination of readers young and old. But it was his drawings that I spent hours studying, looking at the detail he put into the animals and the gear, ropes, saddles, chaps and cowboy hats. The scenes were filled with action, cattle stampeding, horses bucking, cowboys riding and roping. Looking at those drawings by James filled my imagination with wonder, imagining what it must have been like to be a cowboy, riding a half-broke horse, chasing a quitter longhorn through sagebrush and down cutbanks, with his rope, his “twine,” sailing out over the horns of a wild steer. I think it was the pictures of those ropes in mid-flight that fascinated me more than anything. It was a beautiful thing to see. One picture I remember was of a cowboy roping the front legs of a bronc, leaning against the rope as the wild horse was thrown to the ground. The story tells of the helpless horse understanding the man meant him no harm, and of his learning to trust. The beauty I saw in that drawing of a loop gracefully rolling in front of the horse has always been a big part of the tradition and skill shown by Mexican vaqueros and later the cowboys of the American West. If executed correctly, it borders on art. I never thought I would ever have an opportunity to throw a loop like that. But I did.
I grew up carrying a rope around much of the time. People said they could see me coming down the street by the hat I wore and the rope I was swinging. Dogs stayed clear of me, and I got in trouble several times for roping people. I spent hours roping the handlebars of bike and trikes and the roping dummy Dad made.
I bought a young mare from Mick Smith in the late 70s. She had been roped one time to be doctored when she was a yearling and after that experience she was pretty wild. I kept her in a corral, trying to get her used to me but she never let me get near her. She even avoided the feed box if I was too close for comfort. Finally I decided I had to get a halter on her to make any kind of headway. I knew she was afraid of ropes but roping her seemed the only way to get control. Dad was against the idea initially but he finally agreed we had to do it.
We quietly entered the corral, I had my lariat shook out, dragging the big loop on the ground beside me. The little mare sensed danger and started trotting around the fence, breaking into a lope as we inched closer. As she came around in front of me, I swung the loop once, houlihan style, rolling it out in front of the mare. She put both front feet in the loop and stumbled, going down as I leaned on the rope. I hollered at Dad to take the rope and keep it tight while I slipped a halter on her head. She quit struggling when I laid on her neck, getting the halter over her nose and snugged. I stayed there for a few minutes, stroking her and talking quietly to her. I finally rolled off and Dad let loose of the rope. She was up in an instant, running to the far side of the corral, her sides heaving, content to just stand and blow. I left her alone for a while, then one evening as I was graining her, I snapped a lead rope on her halter, expecting a struggle. It never happened. She stood quietly, and stepped toward me when I tightened the rope. I pulled her lightly to the side, and again she stepped towards me, relieving the pressure on the rope. Within a few minutes she was following me around the pen, allowing me to rub her nose and head, stroke her shoulders, sides and belly. A few days later I was riding her in our arena. She never offered any kind of problem.
That day, after I had roped her front feet and we had haltered her, Dad asked, “How did you do that?”, meaning the houlihan loop. I smiled, with a twinkle in my eye. “Easy. I saw Will James do it.”
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A strong windstorm blew through Garfield County, Nebraska, the afternoon of May 12, bringing damage to the rodeo grounds in Burwell, the home of Nebraska’s Big Rodeo.