Old West drives into Texas town

Peo­ple fill the streets to see a mil­lion-dollar herd of cat­tle that had been res­cued from a flood-rav­aged pas­ture.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske molly.hen­nessy-fiske @la­times.com

DAYTON, Texas — This small town looked like the Wild West on Sun­day as peo­ple lined the high­way to wit­ness some­thing not seen in th­ese parts since the 1800s: a cat­tle drive, com­plete with cow­boys, cat­tle dogs and Longhorns.

The cat­tle drive past Jack in the Box, Lit­tle Cae­sars and Fam­ily Dollar was a des­per­ate ef­fort to res­cue more than 600 head of cat­tle trapped when flood­wa­ters from the Trinity River in­un­dated their pas­ture last week, turn­ing it into an is­land.

“What we’re try­ing to do this morn­ing is to herd the cat­tle over to High­way 90” and through town to tem­po­rary pas­ture on land vol­un­teered by the rail­roads, Lib­erty County Sher­iff ’s Capt. Ken De­Foor said.

But that was no easy task.

“Those cat­tle have a mind of their own. When you’re tak­ing them off of some­thing that’s con­sid­ered high ground and put them into wa­ter that’s up to their neck, it takes a lit­tle time. They have dif­fer­ent opin­ions on what they want to do,” De­Foor said.

May was the wettest month on record in Texas. The Hous­ton area was drenched with more than a foot of rain over Me­mo­rial Day week­end, then with at least an­other 3 inches late Satur­day. The storms, which ex­tended into Ok­la­homa, killed at least 36 peo­ple in both states and left about a dozen still miss­ing Sun­day. Home­own­ers, driv­ers and live­stock were stranded statewide.

A lot was at stake for the Lib­erty Bell Ranch’s mil­lion­dol­lar herd, which in­cludes Longhorns, heifers and about 250 calves, some of which had to be res­cued by boat Sun­day.

As the cat­tle moved slowly through the wa­ter and up the high­way, the crowd grew and a pa­rade at­mos­phere reigned in Dayton, a town of 7,300 about 40 miles north­east of Hous­ton.

Par­ents camped out with chil­dren and ba­bies on tail­gates in the Brook­shire Broth­ers gro­cery store park­ing lot. Peo­ple sold wa­ter­mel­ons and ice cream. Some brought soft drinks from the nearby Sonic. A few stood atop their trucks for a bet­ter view as car ra­dios blasted news of the ap­proach­ing herd.

“It’s been a long many years since they done this, back when the high­way was dirt,” said Jimmy Whid­don, 52, a re­tired steel­worker wait­ing on his tail­gate to see the cat­tle drive.

At one point, a news he­li­copter hov­ered over­head and spooked the herd, which split in two and had to be gath­ered again.

Whid­don wor­ried how the cat­tle would act around chil­dren. “Th­ese cat­tle have never been around chil­dren. All they know are pas­tures and hay. What th­ese bulls do, the heifers will fol­low. I’m just hop­ing and pray­ing to God th­ese chil­dren won’t be hol­ler­ing at them,” he said.

As the herd drew closer about 2:30 p.m., some chil­dren hopped into the street for a bet­ter view, but most stayed close to the trucks.

“Are the cows here yet?” some asked re­peat­edly.

Ricky Brown, 61, a tax as­ses­sor, grew up on a ranch and has worked with ranch­ers for years. He con­sid­ered the cat­tle drive a “dras­tic step” to save the herd, which be­longs to Pat Hen­scey, a vet­eran rancher who runs an elec­tric and air con­di­tion­ing shop in town.

With the state’s five-year drought vir­tu­ally over thanks to the re­cent rain, ranch­ers are re­build­ing their herds, re­stock­ing cat­tle and driv­ing up the price — mak­ing Hen­scey’s herd even more valu­able.

The cat­tle drive was risky. Wa­ter sur­round­ing the herd was 6 to 10 feet deep, Brown said. Pic­tures posted on­line mo­ments ear­lier showed calves strug­gling to swim across the moat of f lood­wa­ter threat­en­ing to en­gulf their pas­ture.

“You’re deal­ing with wild an­i­mals that are not used to be­ing cap­tured.... Cat­tle are used to roam­ing, be­ing freerange. It’s not nat­u­ral for them to be in the wa­ter. I’m fig­ur­ing what’s go­ing to go wrong,” Brown said. “It will be in­ter­est­ing to see if he can sal­vage even half of his herd.... It kind of gives you an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of how they did it in the old days.”

Alyssa Sjolan­der, 15, came to watch friends put their rodeo skills to use cor­ralling the herd.

Billy Thacker, 55, brought sons Hay­den, 5, and Bent­ley, 3, two en­er­getic tow­heads in match­ing Wran­gler cow­boy jeans and os­trich skin cow­boy boots. Thacker had seen a cat­tle drive at the stock­yards in Fort Worth, but never through town.

“Who you reckon they’re go­ing to get up be­hind them to sweep up all the poop?” Thacker said.

“You!” Hay­den shouted, gig­gling.

Just then, shortly be­fore 3:30 p.m., cat­tle­men be­gan walk­ing the curbs, warn­ing the crowd to back up — the cows were com­ing.

Game war­dens drove past, as did a firetruck with the driver shout­ing on a bull­horn: “The cows are rowdy — please re­turn to your ve­hi­cles!”

Thacker and a few oth­ers backed up, but only slightly.

And then the cat­tle ap­peared: a solid mud-speck­led bovine line mov­ing as one up the high­way, a dozen cat­tle dogs at their heels.

The crowd stilled, nearly si­lent. They watched the cows pass within arm’s reach, close enough to smell the ma­nure and hear moos and grunts. Cow­boys rode horse­back along­side, some tot­ing las­sos.

Hay­den and Bent­ley stared wide-eyed. Af­ter a few mo­ments, Hay­den took his brother’s hand. He held it un­til the last trailer passed, and Bent­ley let go to point at the few stray calves in­side.

“They fight like cats and dogs,” their fa­ther said as he watched the boys. “But they take care of each other.”

No in­juries were re­ported among the crowd, and the cat­tle kept to them­selves.

“I was im­pressed with how or­derly they were,” said Brown’s wife, Becky, 61, a kinder­garten teacher.

So was Myr­tle Free­man, 74, a re­tired men­tal health worker who waited hours to see the cat­tle. Af­ter so much tragedy this week, she said, it was good to see the herd saved. “Soon as they get them on dry land, they’ll be good,” Free­man said.

A few cat­tle were lost in the swift-mov­ing wa­ter, De­Foor said, but most made it safely to the rail yard that will serve as their tem­po­rary home.

Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske Los An­ge­les Times

A COW­BOY helps guide cat­tle through Dayton, Texas, about 40 miles north­east of Hous­ton. “It’s been a long many years since they done this, back when the high­way was dirt,” one res­i­dent said of the cat­tle drive.

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