Brush Popping ‘Fighter Pilot”

By Baxter Black

It’s as close to being a fighter pilot as I’ll ever come. As a college youth plotting my future, I had, on two different occasions, taken the physical and written exams to apply for Officer’s Candidate School to become a Navy pilot. Father intervened and those dreams went to the way of ‘songwriter’ and ‘car designer.’ I stayed the cowboy I always was. Never a regret.

Cowboys who ride where the mesquite and catclaw are thick are called brush poppers. It is grand to be in the company of good cowboys who trust their horses and are fearless. When a best breaks out of the bunch you’re bringin’ in on a gather, the race is on! Range cows, as I have pointed out to the unfamiliar, are often as close to wild animals as one can come without requiring a hunting license. They are like discount store employees; you can’t actually walk up to one. They are domesticated, not tame. They are fleet of foot, frighteningly fast will quit the bunch and never look back. If they break out on your side, you better have your cinch tight ‘cause you’re in for the ride.

A 300-pound part-bramer balface calf can run like a deer. They are out of sight before you get your horse swung around. Trying to outrun one to turn it back will test a horse. In the space of five seconds you are at a dead run. The ground is rocky, the arroyos come up like bad guys in a video game, some so quick only your horse sees them. Same for the dreaded barrel cactus or horse crippler.

As the screen in front of you is flashing by, you are watching for small spaces between the brush or the occasional clear ridge for a glimpse of the calf. You are also clicking your eyes frontward, sighting down the barrel of your horse’s head between his laid-back ear, all at a pace as fast as you can urge your horse to run.

Hat pulled down, feet heavy in the stirrups, sittin’ light, horse and reins in one hand, rope in the other, spurs dug in. A cow on a cow trail can go under a limb 16 hands high. So can a horse. The only thing stickin; out is you. Duckin’ and divin’ after a bunch of quitter is like sitting in the front seat of a roller coaster. The horizon and air speed indicator constantly tilt and whirl. You balance like a gyroscope over your horse. You’re hunting a hole or crack in a solid wall of 12-foot high mesquite, catclaw, agave, cholla and whitehorn that slap and scrape your leggings and tapaderas, that rip and scratch your shirtsleeves, hand sand ears that jerk at your rope, punch your ribs and float your stomach. Split second decisions, always hoping that the limb will break, the calf will turn or the throw is good.

Speed and uncertainty; exhilarating. Trusting a big-hearted horse; power. Catchin’ the runway at the end of a long rope; all in a day’s work. Brush popper.