in Texas' trail-driving days, a cow pony could cause a man an awful lot of worry
- especially a horse with idiosyncrasies.
One day in the 1870s, Mississippi-born
Mark Withers left his Caldwell County ranch to gather another herd of cattle to
drive to market in Kansas. Years later, he told the story of what happened next
to his son-in-law, the late Holland Page of Lockhart.
In Bastrop to buy some stock, Withers saw a horse that caught his fancy. He purchased
the pony, too, to ride up the trail.
A wise cattleman didn't just take
one horse on a long journey, no matter what Western movies would have people believe.
He took several, so as not to ride one pony to death. Even so, a cowboy generally
developed a liking for a certain horse. In Withers' case, he became particularly
fond of the pony he'd bought in Bastrop.
only hitch with the animal was that it wouldn't stand being hitched. But the solution
was simple enough. If a rider simply dropped the pony's reins to the ground, the
horse would stay put on its own. The Bastrop man warned Withers that tying the
horse to something would lead to trouble.
Withers soon realized he had
made a wise choice in buying the pony, despite its aversion to being tied. The
cattle drive went well, too, Withers making good money in marketing his beeves
at the railhead.
The economic chaos of the Civil War still fresh on his
mind, the Texas stockman preferred to sell his steers for gold instead of paper
money. Sometimes, however, he had to settle for a combination of both. That proved
to be the case on this particular drive, when Withers headed back to Texas with
a saddlebag full of gold and cash astride the rump of the horse he'd bought in
Somewhere in Indian Territory one day, Withers got hungry for
dinner and galloped to the chuck wagon for some grub. His appetite must have dulled
his memory, because he forgot and tied up the horse that didn't like being tied.
The first time the famished Withers looked up from his tin plate, he realized
his horse had vanished. And with it many thousands of dollars.
having disappeared along with his fortune, Withers quickly saddled another horse
from his remuda and tried to find the tracks of the richest horse on either side
of the Red River.
For two weeks, Withers and his cowhands hunted the four-footed
treasure in the thick brush along that portion of the cattle trail. Finally, worn
out, broke and still owing money he had borrowed to buy the cattle, Withers dejectedly
turned south for home on one of his less eccentric horses.
Back in Central
Texas, he sadly explained to his wife that they were in big trouble. His carelessness
had cost them their future, not to mention a good horse.
A few weeks later,
still devastated over the loss of his hard-earned money, Withers received a penny
post card from the man who sold him the cattle and the now-missing horse. The
peregrinating pony, still carrying its saddle and saddlebags, had shown up in
Bastrop - more than 300 miles from where Withers had last seen it.
the old West, the arrival of a rider-less horse usually portended bad news. Could
be, the former owner logically figured, Withers lay dead somewhere, killed by
Indians, crushed in a stampede or drowned crossing a river. It could have been
any number of things. Even so, the Bastrop man had sent the stray notice to Withers'
address in Lockhart. Until he learned for sure what had become of Withers, he
put the horse out to pasture and stored Withers' gear in his barn.
reading the card, Withers constituted a one-man stampede getting to Bastrop
from Lockhart. The seller took Withers
to his barn, where the cattleman ripped open his saddlebags like a kid tearing
the wrapping from his only birthday present. His gold and greenbacks had not been
Thanking the Bastrop man for his integrity, Withers led his favorite
horse and the proceeds from his long, hard trail drive back to Caldwell County.
A few years before he died in 1938, the old cattleman told his son-in-law
that the close call he had with the picky pony stood as one of the greatest experiences
of his long life.
Withers had kept the horse for many years, but he darn
sure never tied it up again.
© Mike Cox
September 28, 2006 column