Empty Saddles

                                               Empty Saddles


                                                 Rusty Fleming


On Monday, May 25th, I got word Emil Luedecke had passed away. I never knew him well, but I was around him some a few years back, always at a border collie sheepdog trial. Emil had worked on the “railroad”, the Santa Fe, for lots of years, but when I first saw and met him he was retired from the railroad, had a place near Zephyr, south of Brownwood, and was neck deep in border collie doin’s. He was a sheep man, in sheep country and a good hand with his dogs, and when I met him, I knew he was the kind of guy that you could respect. He was quiet and unassuming but he gave off the radiance that if he told you something, you could bank on it. After retiring from the railroad, he went across the pond and imported a couple of dogs in the early ‘90’s from Great Britain and he never looked back. He learned, trained, competed and won a lot of working dog trials, and garnished respect from folks everywhere he went. In 2014 he was inducted into the Border Collie Hall of Fame. He was the 12th man to ever be inducted, no small feat in the world of dog handling. He took all the fame in stride and continued to garnish respect when he gave all the credit for all of “his wins” to his dogs. Emil was a solid, fair and square man, and one that I hate to see gone, because he has left a void in the lives of a lot of people. At a time when there’s a lot of bad things happening “out there” in our world, we all suffer by losing these kind of “cornerstone” folks. Everyone that ever met him harbored a respect that came from being close to a great one, you never doubted it, you could feel it. Thanks for the memories and life lessons Emil, rest in peace, you have earned your spot up yonder.


Then on Wednesday, the 27th I learned we’d lost another one, a south Texas legend had crossed over. Thomas Franklin “TOM” Jennings of George West. I first met him in the early 90’s when I was running and overseeing “doodlebug” crews across south Texas. We had to cross the Dougherty ranches between George West and Freer, and before operations could begin, I had to meet with Tom and get the “rules of operations” across the Dougherty’s. One main reason to meet was for Tom to confer with the dozer operators who had the task of bulldozing the sendero’s thru the south Texas brush country for a clean right-of-way for the seismic crews to operate on and to insure the dozed senderos were gonna be done to Tom’s standards. Tom and I were sitting on the tailgate of my pickup waiting for the first dozer to arrive on a haul truck, and I made mention of Bob Reagan. Bob worked for some big south Texas ranch folks that had bought the Six Bar Ranch south of Salt Flats, in the shadows of the Guadalupe and Delaware Mountains, north of Van Horn, who had incidentally, a few years before, had hired none other than Mike Capron to run the Six Bar. Tom told a few stories about his early cowboy days with Bob and some others of the Reagan’s. The Reagan family were hard working south Texas RANCHY folks scattered from Beeville, Three Rivers, George West, to Tilden and beyond. We talked about big south Texas rattling snakes, and lots of other stuff, but I could tell Tom was sure proud of his reputation days when he and Bob were known far and wide as wild and wooly “pear jumpers”. Tom said he’d had offers over the years to work on ranches in easier parts of the world, but he said he always wound up back home, where he could “jump a few pears”, and all in the spirit of a tough job, gathering wild cattle out of the south Texas brush.


I looked up and here come the haul trucks. The chief dozer pilot was in the lead, in his pickup.


The dozer pilot was Pancho Villarreal from Freer, top notch operator known far and wide as an artist with a D-6, at what we called back then, “brush sculpting”,,, meaning he did an extremely good job cutting dozed trails and cleaning up the 2 and 3 blade wide senderos very well. I had already assured Tom we would make a “vuelta” around all the fence lines cleaning brush off the pasture fences in the pastures we went across, which was a great asset on those ranches. Lots of times, if you didn’t see it in a sendero, you didn’t see it,,, the “brush curtain” is that thick. The haul truck arrives and pulls off in the bar ditch to unload and Pancho, the dozer pilot pulls up and gets out of his pickup, and broke into a big grin and walks over to shake and say hello to Tom, who he had known for years. Tom said, “Rusty if I’d’a know you were using Pancho I could have saved a trip out here,,,I have things to do, call me when you’re finished”,,.. and headed to his pickup, he reaches for the door, turns around and said, “Thanks for the visit”,,,he grinned and drove off. I saw him a few times over the years and it was always good for a short visit.


Then a few years later I was doing a lot of oil and gas landman work in the McAllen area. For recreation I had a handful of border collies I was training in my spare time on a friend’s place between McAllen and Mission. This friend had just started breeding and selling “show goats” and I was teaching him how to use border collies as “exercise dogs” on 4-H and FFA club lambs and goats. He gets a call from a woman between Three Rivers and George West, that is in big need of a track dog, as their’s had just died, and it was a few weeks til their county livestock show, and yes they’d need to buy a dog, but they were needing help pronto. Jaime gave me her number and that night I called her, told her I could be at their place about 3 the next day, and we’d see what we could work out. The next day, I escaped work early, loaded my top dog and two good yearlings that were sure working out good. I drove the 180 miles up there, found their place and got out to meet everybody when I see this grizzled guy sitting in a lawn chair in the shade, and I walked over and sure nuff it’s Tom Jennings. He was grinning really big and said “Sure want to thank you for helping my grandsons, Cody and Byron”. Tom’s daughter Darlene walks over and says, “,,,if you two are thru reminiscing, can we see these dogs work please”. So I unloaded the three, my top female Nan and the two yearlin’s, these two were sired by a dog named HANK,, the biggest baddest border collie that ever walked,,,owned then by Glenn Guttridge, an Australian cowboy, border collie breeder and handler,,, Glenn had adopted Texas as his new home, and HANK had the reputation of being the baddest dog to ever turn a rank cow,,, and that trait was showing well in his pups,,, Cody and Byron had a barn full of big blackfaced lambs that were harder than rocks, lighting fast and Darlene said they could be kind of wild and would fight a dog,,,well, we started working, and all their lambs had the fight lust but my dogs stared the lambs down, we worked all the lambs twice as I rotated dogs, got them plenty well dog broke, and had showed the boys and their mom how I worked those dogs. I made a deal for them to keep the three and use them til their county show was over, I’d come get the dogs, then next show season I’d have a good dog for them to buy. Tom was commenting he was kinda glad his grandsons dog had died cause he wasn’t anything like my dogs,,,I puffed up pretty proud over that. Come to find out Tom and his son-in-law, Rusty Oxford really enjoyed tuff dogs, but their tuff dogs were brush country cow dogs and they also had kennels full of bobcat and lion dogs that got used a lot thinning the mountain lion and bobcat populations around the brush country.





After that episode Tom never let me forget how much he appreciated me helping out his grandsons. A great guy, bigger than life itself, and another one gone,,, another void to be filled, by those that had worlds of respect for the Bob Reagan’s and the Tom Jennings that grew up and did well in a world much different than we know today. Thanks Tom, I will always appreciate having had the opportunity to have known you. Rest in peace amigo.


Yesterday I was reading Tom’s obituary, and the thought hit me, having been told these things happen in “three’s” and wondering, who’s gonna be the third. Well, in a couple of hours, yesterday, Friday, May 29, Tommy Yeager calls to tell me Harvey Smith had died. Big Harvey, how could he have died,,,,he was too tuff to die. I first met him LONG years ago in Harry Wilson’s Welding Shop in Artesia, NM. Harry was legendary, for lots of reasons, but known far and wide as a super guy,,, you had something broke, bring it the Harry’s shop and Harvey’d weld it back together better and stouter than it was the day you bought it,,,one of those that could weld anything from a broken heart to the crack of dawn,,,,”Go get some coffee or eat lunch, come back and Harvey will have it ready for you”,,,, that was Harvey, a fixture in the shadows of that shop. Harv had a perpetual case of lump jaw, he could stuff a whole bag of Red Man or Beechnut in his jaw, drop his welding hood down and burn rod after rod and you never seen Harvey spit,,,,yeah he was tuff.  After Harry died, the welding shop was sold and tore down as it was on a valuable corner on Artesia’s south side, and big Harvey built a shop of his own on his place north of Artesia, near his arena,,, and the welding projects continued on. Harvey Smith Welding. Harvey always had a string of corriente’s and Harv was putting on lots of ropings. Harv was always mounted good, but one horse that stuck out in my mind was a big sorrel he called Colonel. He’d got Colonel from Pow Carter, and this horse was fast and stout and looked like Harvey should have been born, already grown, in the saddle, on Colonel - dallied and gone left,,, Harvey was a header and Colonel was a head horse.


In 1975 I was living in Artesia, and another guy had some steers and we practiced,,, we were all in the growing stages of “DALLY TEAM ROPING”.

I had a friend with a nice kind of head horse that had for some reason, had misplaced his ability to stop correctly. He’d always face on a tight rope but his stopping mechanism needed a tune up. His owner and I were discussing this between runs and I said I thought his head horse need to be jerked pretty hard, and being forced into getting his butt in the ground and it ought just take one dose of fixing. “Here Rob, let me have him”,,, I stepped off mine, dropped Rob’s stirrups down to fit me, stepped aboard with my real new, h-a-r-d lay heel line,,,we loped around the back of the pen a bit, tried to stop, nothing big, just stop,,, and Rob’s head horse didn’t,,,so I loped down near the chutes, Harvey had rode in the head box, I asked if he’d turn me one and told Harvey when he got him roped, if I caught two feet, go to the end of it,,, I had all the confidence in the world this method of equine fixology would work, one reason was Harv was gonna catch,,,I been around a few ropers, but specifically two stick in my mind that NEVER, I mean NEVER missed slick horns, Big Harvey Smith and J.B. Whatley,,, it just wudn’t in their DNA to miss,,,,so, Harv said, “hit cha huh”,, and I said back with a definite “YES”. Back then nobody, I mean nobody roped with a glove, we had calluses on our hands that would turn a .22 bullet,,,or a 16 penny nail,,,  a bit later a guy named Johnny Kingston showed up on the scene wearing a Larry Mahan “GrizzlY” felt hat that was wooley and fuzzy and this guy roped with a glove,,, There was always a fews snickers about this guy till you seen him rope,,,then I gaurauntee you’d be off to buying a glove. Back to the story,,,,Harv nodded, the steer broke, I went wide so I’d have to ride to the hip, Harv caught, went left and was leaning over on ol’ Colonels neck like he was dodging Comanche arrows and they were movin’ on.


I rode to the steer, roped two feet, hauled back on the brake line and went to the horn,,,, like most rope wrecks, they happen fast, whatever went wrong did and the coils in my left hand were zinging around the horn cushioned by my right thumb,,,,,,as it was pinned to the horn,,, I guess the nearly new hard lay rope saved my thumb cause I didn’t get tight before I had run out of rope. It burned thru the skin, exposed the bone,,,yes, bones are white,,,, now, look at your right thumb, and with your left index finger, feel how much cushion there is between the bone and the hide,,, NONE,,,,there was no blood as the skin was welded and seared to the bone, I told Rob, sorry I couldn’t finish fixing his horse, I gathered up my rope, loaded mine, drove to town to the drug store, bought a tube of Neosporin and some large bad-aids, went to the house, unloaded, unsaddled, and doctored my thumb,,,

a couple weeks later I had to go to the doctor for something else, and he saw my bandaged thumb and asked what cause that, I peeled back the band aids, told him about the wreck and he grabbed some stuff and re-dressed and bandaged my thumb, gave me a shot and scolded me for not tending to it properly as I could have gotten gangrene and lost my whole hand,,,, I didn’t think it was that bad a deal,,,next time you see me, ask about it and I show the scar,,,I still have it,,,as wide as the thumb bone,,,,


Well a couple years later I was at a big roping at Carlsbad, and I was in the roping club there that owned the steers, we kept the steers there at the Eddy County Sheriff’s Posse Arena,,,handy that way, with lights, bleachers, a way to water the arena and we’d have big ropings and pay for the cattle that way ,,, our monthly member’s dues paid the feed bills, and we always had good cattle to rope,,, back then, there was essentially two classifications of roping,,, ropings and novice ropings, novice ropings you can figure out on your own, but “ropings” were pretty well open to the world,,,and there were more than a few wolves deeply imbedded in the team roping scene in the surrounding area. It was nothing to have a roping and look up and you knew it could get tuff when every wolf in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and a few hungry refuges from California showed up to give us “lessons”,, so it was a given, if you placed in those ropings, against those guys, you were gaining in the knowledge part of this sport,,,


We always had enough cattle to put on “big” ropings, there were times we’d even have 8 and 10 headers,,, on this particular set of steers, we had one steer we affectionately  called Buford,,,, he had the ability to cast off every loop that had ever been throwed at him, if you roped slick horns he’d switch his head and get out of the loop, it you tried to neck him, he just about stop and shiver the rope off,,,he was never taken out of the draw,,,,and he had enuff brands and tricks you just knew he’d  seen more arenas than Leo Camarillo, well me and Harvey were entered and we’re three or four teams back and I seen Buford,, he was banded, which was a waste of time, cause nobody ever caught him,,, I told Harv looks like we drawed Buford and I told Harvey what he was like and that the farther you run him, the harder it gets to catch him,,,,,Big Harv inserted another sack of Red Man chew and said, you better get ready to be quick, and we rode in the box.

Everybody was snickering when they saw Buford, Harv nodded and he throwed a what I’d call now a Speedy Williams,,, two swings and he throwed and went left and as Buford tried to slow up, Harv’s head rope come tight ,,, clean neck shot,,,


I think I may have had three swings and I throwed as Buford came by me,,,,

I dallied ,, everything came tight, when the dust cleared  I had two feet,,,we had a 4.85 second run,,,unheard of back then,,,but Harv had got out, it was good, set the arena record,,, I don’t know if it still stands or not but it did that day and we win the round,,,,I rode back in the catch pen and somebody said,,, Rusty, how ‘bout that handle,,, Slim Berry, a tuff hand, laughed and said,, “Rusty doesn’t know anymore about that handle than he knows about what color that steer was”,,,


Slim was right, except for knowing it was Buford, I had roped him in the switch, and after I throwed I lost sight of everything under my horses neck,, I asked Walt Woodard about that years later at one of Walt’s schools,, Walt said “,,,,,we call that a desperation shot, roping in the switch,,,cause there sure isn’t any way to set up a textbook run,,,, and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t try one of those loops at my schools, there are people here trying to learn and there just isn’t much way, nor do I have the incentive, to explain or to teach the likes of that”.


Didn’t mean to go off on me, because that run couldn’t have been done without Big Harvey Smith and Colonel. Go rest now Harvey, and thanks muchos.


I have had a lot of fun over the years and hope the fun times aren’t near over yet, but it sure has made me think hard about three guys I have known, that I just didn’t think were that old, gone over a matter of a few days. Three guys from three different cultures that I have been blessed to have known.


Some time back I told my son something and that had made me feel old, he said “Dad, you are old”. Yeah I know, but what that tells me, I guess is,,, be glad to see everybody you know, ‘cause you don’t know when it’s over,,, so let’s have some more fun,,, I have been really blessed by knowing quite a few people and have enjoyed the trips around the sun,,,, but never forget those that have gone on before us, that made those trips worth it all,,,, and that we were in this life with them.


I pay tribute to you three guys, Emil, Tom and Harvey, thank you for the times together, I am really fortunate to have known yall,,,,all yall.



Great life you guys have had., loti of memories.

Ronny Williams

As all way’s great stories, and me being a saddle nut, the art sent me plumb over the hill. Keep up the good work.///

Joel Paradis

Hi Mike, I don’t know if Rusty has a whole lot more stuff written but if not you’ve got to encourage him to work at it. I had no clue what a doodlebug crew was so had to look that up. When I came to ’ bar ditch’ I already knew that due to Lucy Griffith’s book of poems about the Burro Lady – that term has not worked its way up to the northeast. So I’m learning though not being so young myself at 77 I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got to reread some of the ropin’ stuff to try to figure out exactly what was going on with Buford. Most dairy farmers up this way had dogs but not cow dogs. One I knew well did have a Border Collie and it was interesting to see him work from time to time. Anyway please keep after Rusty – he is a good writer, tells really interesting stories in an easy enjoyable way to read. Somebody ought to start putting them together and make a book out of them – even a short book is better than no book. Doesn’t have to be fancy either – if it’s no more than a bunch of pages stapled together that’d be fine. And Mike, your illustration for “Empty Saddles” is really fine. Hope all’s well,

Yours, Joel

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