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Memories In Texas, Gathering Cattle Under a Horse Thief Moon

So last week was the last full moon of 2022, and it sure was a beauty! With all the fresh snow in the mountains and the hills in the foreground, it sure was a sight to see.

I think no matter where you live, and I think this is more true for folks who live out in the country than in the city, you get to thinking that big old moon shining over your piece of the world is your own moon and not the whole worlds to share.

I got to thinking about this more when someone, I believe from Idaho, was also talking online about what a great moon they had hanging over their ranch. I have always loved a full moon, from the Red Harvest Moons we get in the fall to the bright cold bring ones we see in the winter. But my favourite is probably the full moon in March. Where we are on the Highwood River Valley of Southern Alberta, we get a big ole full moon that sets right over the top of Longview and hangs there for a while before dropping down behind the Rockies. It always reminds me of an old song by my friend, Ian Tyson, Horsetheif Moon.

I found out that the bright moon wasn’t just a local phenomenon a long time ago when I spent a winter in Texas working for Larry Reeder. I have talked before about Larry and his cutting horse training ranch south of Stephenville, Texas. Larry liked to keep things western at his place and kept to the old traditions as much as possible. One of these was he had a Line Shack of sorts about a mile away from the ranch headquarters. Larry and most of his help lived down at the headquarters, but I stayed at the line shack. Calling it a line shack was pretty accurate; it was a long way from being fancy, but it suited me just fine.

It had a living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. Built onto the side was a lean-to that served as a saddle house and feed room of sorts. There was a small corral right there where my saddle horse would spend his off time. To start with, I had a bunkey by the name of Pat. Pat was good company, but he got lovesick, missing his girlfriend and drug up and headed home shortly after I got there. So after he split, I then had the palace to myself. Which also suited me fine, not that I spent a lot of time there anyways.

At Larry’s, we worked six days a week, with Sundays off for good behaviour. The days started before sun up and ended at sundown. My job every morning was to bring in the settling steers. Now, a settling steer is a quiet steer that has been there and done that. They have been in the working corrals long enough not to get excited or bothered about what's going on around them. They understand that if they just relax and chill out in the middle of the round pen they will not be disturbed. They are called settling steers because they help the new fresh cattle that are being worked with to relax and “settle down.”

So it was my duty to gather these steers from their pasture and head them down to headquarters to start the day. So every morning in the dark I would catch my horse, saddle up and ride out in search of the elusive settling steers. If my memory serves me correctly, I would say that the pasture was maybe 160 acres. Not real big by most terms, but plenty big when you are trying to find twenty-head of steers in the dark.

What I would do is ride to the top of a big hill in the pasture and then sit and listen. What we had done was strap a bell around the necks of a few of these critters. These bells would clang if the steers would move and give away their location to the stealthy hired hand in charge of gathering them.

This worked great as long as they weren't still bedded down or hiding out in some thick mesquite brush. Someometims if the wind was blowing pretty hard, you couldn’t hear the ringing of their bells unless they were quite close.

The ideal mornings were that of a full moon, a star-lit sky, and with no wind, or maybe just a gentle breeze, enough to jingle the bell on a steer in the distance. You see, a gentle breeze can carry the sound of a bell a good distance. So on mornings like this, I would trot up to the top of my look-out-hill on my trusty cow pony and stop and give a listen. It was at times like this that I realized that the big ‘ole Texas moon was not just something of in songs; it was real & everything was in fact bigger and brighter in Texas. Cue ‘Deep In The Heart Of Texas’ by Moe Brandy because the stars at night are indeed big and bright deep in the heart of Texas.

It was truly bigger and brighter than any moon I had ever seen before in Alberta. And with the help of this “Horsethief Moon”, I would trail the steers down to the working pens. This being done, I might even have time for a coffee with Larry and the rest of the crew while we waited for the sun to rise a little more before we started our day.

So any time now that I see that big ‘ole full moon hanging over the Highwood Valley, I pause for a moment and take it in. It reminds me of an Ian Tyson song or maybe that winter I spent in Texas, and it makes me think of the new young ranch-hands bringing in settling steers, with the help of the moon, somewhere deep in the heart of Texas.

-- KJS

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