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by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Back 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.

The 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 Bastrop.

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.

His appetite 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.

In 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.

After 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 touched.

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
"Texas Tales" >

September 28, 2006 column
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