The canyons along Kell Branch as it nears the Leon River are typical “cedar breaks.” Steep limestone walls, heavy brush, and scattered small meadows held a treasury of squirrels, rabbits, deer, and other wildlife. For thousands of years Indians lived around the springs and caves along the Branch.
In the 1950s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began condemnation of the bottom lands that extended along the Leon and up Kell Branch. The soon-to-be-built Lake Belton would eventually flood the “Bottoms” and would forever erase the magic of that unique piece of Texas real estate.
During the transition between condemnation and actual flooding, our family leased from the government a large tract in the Leon bottoms. It was a cheap lease, but came with the difficulty of managing cattle in the rough terrain. The cattle we ran mirrored the terrain – rough and dangerous.
To assist with the cattle wrangling, my father bought an additional horse. The new mount was a medium sized sorrel gelding. As he walked, his ears flopped in an unusual manner and my cousins suggested the name “Rabbit” to match the ear motion. For some reason, my father preferred the name “Buttons” and it stuck to the new mount.
Whenever a new horse comes on the scene, it takes a while to learn the horse’s disposition and abilities. There were a few things that we certainly needed to know about Buttons. It wouldn’t take long for us to learn those lessons.
Moving the cows out of the bottoms and into the corrals was always challenging. On the first such roundup with Buttons things were especially difficult. Cows went in all directions all day. Calves, separated from their mothers, hid in the tight cedar brush canyons. Just as the cows neared the wing fence that guided them toward the corrals, one especially difficult cow we called Crook, took off the wrong way.
Buttons, with Dad on board, made his move. The problem was that he was already in the wing and thus on the wrong side of the fence to get in front of Crook. To the horror of all concerned, Buttons headed straight toward the fence. A disaster was inescapable. Just at the moment of imminent cataclysm – BUTTONS FLEW! Over the fence, Dad hanging on for dear life. Three to four feet of fence – never touched! Out in front of Crook, a quick turn, and back into the wing came Crook with a surprised look. We had a horse that could fly.
A few weeks later, we were at it again. Crook had to be caught, and by now had a new calf. Crook was a mean spirited old cow on the best of days. When defending a new calf, she was especially dangerous. Our working dog was a Border Collie named Skipper. Skipper made a pass around Crook and her calf to bring them around to be within roping distance.
All at once, Crook turned on Skipper and the direction of the chase reversed. Skipper ran straight toward Buttons, fleeing from the charging cow by running under the horse. Head down, full speed, horns poised, Crook ran straight at Buttons in pursuit of Skipper.
At the very last moment, it happened again – Buttons flew. This time up and forward in a sudden jerk. Just in time, disaster was again diverted. Crook’s horns barely scraped Buttons. Flying had become the normal expectation for our new horse.
Round three took place the next day with the pursuit still aimed at catching Crook. By now we had several family members on horses and on foot, all aimed at getting Crook into an opening where getting a rope on her would be possible. The moment came with my father in hot pursuit on Buttons. The rope went straight on Crook with her in a full run. It pulled tight, and then POP!
The saddle girth broke, and this time it was Dad that was flying. It seemed like forever before he hit the ground – still in the saddle. Within seconds, Crook, the lariat, the saddle, and Dad all disappeared into the cedar brush. We found them all a few hundred feet into the brush with Dad still tangled in the saddle that had become wedged under a cedar bush with Crook still on the end of the rope.
My uncle threw another loop on Crook and controlled her while the rest of us retrieved my groaning father and the saddle from the brush. We got him home and into bed where he recovered over several days.
After his flying lesson, my father rarely rode a horse. I never saw him rope another cow from a horse. We were always careful not to get into a situation where Buttons would have occasion to jump. We eventually had to place a leather strap with a length of chain to his front leg to keep Buttons the Flying Horse from jumping our fences.