When Hurricane Harvey flooded Southeast Texas farms and ranches, cowboys answered the call.
Chance Ward ducked out onto his trailer’s screened-in front porch and listened to the rain beat against the metal cladding of the roof. It had started coming down in earnest that morning, August 26, 2017, when Hurricane Harvey’s fat feeder bands started arcing out of the Gulf of Mexico and breaking over the coastal plains like waves. They stretched from Galveston, Texas, clear to Ward’s little spread in Liberty County, in the sparsely populated piney flatwoods more than 60 miles from the coast.
When eight hours had passed without so much as a moment’s letup, Ward knew what was coming. There was hardly a square foot from Coldspring south to Liberty that he hadn’t crossed horseback in pursuit of game or a stray heifer. He understood these bayous and river bottoms, what they could take, and when they’d jump their banks. Here, pincered between the East Fork of the San Jacinto River and the Trinity River, the flood, he worried, would get biblical before it was over.
Ward has a physique built for steer wrestling, with a torso like a 50-gallon drum, and a broad, friendly face. Most of the time he works in his feed store, but he also auctioneers livestock, raises cattle, breeds working dogs, and contracts with the sheriff’s department to track down and round up everything from loose yearlings to llamas.
As parts of the county took on more than 2 feet of water in 24 hours, his son Rowdy, a 17-year-old ace bareback bronc rider and team roper, was already out helping people move horses. The rivers were coming up faster by the moment. “Don’t make any plans,” Chance told Rowdy. “We’re fixin’ to get busy.”
By August 28, Harvey had been downgraded to a tropical storm even as the water kept rising and the rain kept coming down in unprecedented volume. Southeast Texas was in the midst of the worst flood disaster in state history. Parts of Liberty County would ultimately receive more than 4 feet of rain. Flood gauges on the East Fork of the San Jacinto and Trinity were already breaking crest records by feet, not inches. Livestock, Ward knew, could drown by the thousands, fenced into the floodwaters with nowhere to run. Because plans don’t last long when the rivers hit flood stage, Ward’s was simple: Find stricken animals and swim them to high ground.
His life here had trained him for this, an event sure to serve as a yardstick against which all others would be measured. As a boy, Ward had learned that fast-moving water is more dangerous than any gator. That you give a swimming horse its head and never fight the current. And that if you tie off a cow’s legs and keep its snout out of the water, you can float that animal on its side for miles.
As the waters steadily rose, spilling over ridges no old-timer had ever seen submerged, the riverine cowboys prepared to put their abilities to the test.
That morning Chance and Rowdy climbed into a Dodge diesel 4x4 and motored over swamped county roads to his father’s house, where Ward had temporarily stabled his horses and dogs. He hitched the truck to a gooseneck trailer while Rowdy collared a few “black mouth curs,” yellow scent hounds that won’t be found on any kennel club registry. They packed the dogs into the trailer’s forward compartment. They hauled their halters, blankets, and saddles out of a plywood shed and loaded the horses into the trailer as the hounds yipped and the diesel chugged in idle. Then they set out.
The highways had become rivers. Eighteen-wheelers sagged in the ditches like capsized barges. Cars had been carried off by the current into the nearby woods. Ward took it slow, water to the headlights, the brush guard pushing through the flood like a boat’s prow. In the trailer, the hounds were up to their ears and paddling. Ward had left the gate unlatched, just in case they got into trouble and needed to extricate their animals in a hurry.
The truck pulled off at a ranch sitting under 5 feet, and 6 to 7 in places. They unloaded their mounts and swung aboard. In slanting rain, they shouldered through water that licked at the backs of their knees. Rowdy headed toward a corral, inside of which a dark bay stud paced, cutting an anxious wake before the gate. Rowdy’s lariat flared and flicked out from his hand, cinching around the horse’s neck. With his rope in one hand, he leaned over and grabbed the gate’s top crossbar with the other. Rowdy, long and lean where his father is stout and broad, jerked sideways in the saddle, little by little torquing the gate’s rusted hinges. Ward video-recorded it all and posted the footage on Facebook, his flood diary on the move.
Rowdy pulled the stud from what would have been its grave and swam him to high ground. They went back and forth this way, roping seven horses in all, most of them scarcely halter-broken and floundering around a barn with the turbid, mud-brown floodwaters nearly up to the eaves. With all the animals pulled to safety, Ward and Rowdy started to move down the road.
By then word had traveled by mouth, phone, and Facebook, and soon neighbors were wading out to the roadside to flag the Wards down. And so they got back into the water, roping and leading livestock to relatively dry land. They didn’t stop until nightfall, wet, chapped, and worn out.
They went out the next day, too, and the day after that, though it wasn’t just the two of them any longer. Cowboys all over the area, mostly from around the Wards’ hometown of Tarkington Prairie, threw in with them. The next day it was a group of hands from Waco and Buffalo. The rescues got bigger, more difficult, and more dangerous. In Dayton, in the south part of the county, seven cowboys churned through choppy waters across a wide, largely treeless pasture that now looked more like a lake. They cut the wire fence that had trapped the cattle and led through the opening some 250 head in water up to their briskets.
Along the river bottoms, they traveled by jon boat, by airboat, and by horse. They swam their mounts for miles through the deep woods in water as high as 17 feet, using the county roads, the dirt farm lanes, and even the overtopped Interstate 69 as canals. They dodged seething flotillas of fire ants, not always successfully. They plucked dogs from the water and chickens from foundering coops. They swam alongside alligators and water moccasins, longhorns and donkeys.
Some of the latter they roped, some they floated, some they pushed, and some they paddled alongside of. After a few days in the water, the flood had begun to break the animals down. They often had bad “river rot,” the hide sloughing from their legs and bellies like ragged strips of cloth. But these were the lucky ones. Wherever the water was high and the animals fenced in, they found drowned cattle, bloated and drifting. They found ponies that had been deposited some 10 feet off the ground into the high-water-marked tree limbs.
Faced with so much death, Ward would try to remember what his uncle up in Coldspring — the cowboy who taught him most of what he knows — had always told him about death when the land that provides suddenly turns. “It ain’t about what you lost,” he’d said. “It’s about what you saved.”
By one estimate, Ward’s group moved more than 1,100 animals to safety. His Facebook posts ended up on news broadcasts all over the world. One of the small-town cowboy’s videos was viewed as many as 12 million times. Ward and Rowdy came to symbolize the self-sufficient streak running through rural Texans.
These were hard days, to be sure, but they were good, too. It wasn’t unusual for Ward to bring a bunch of out-of-town cowboys to his dad’s house, where his sister would fry up steaks and eggs — a king’s feast, as far as they were concerned. Then they’d all crash into exhausted, blackout sleep, men strewn all over the house in every conceivable nook.
Ward and Rowdy were in the saddle every day, from daybreak to dusk, for seven days. Surely, Ward thought, they had saved what they could. Nothing else could last this long out there, standing or floating, much less in the still-high waters along the Trinity River bottom.
But on the night before the last day of his mission, Ward got a call about some cattle in those very straits. “Bulls---,” he said. “There’s no way they’re still alive.”
“No,” the caller insisted. “They’re down there. They’ve been seen.”
The next morning, Ward, Rowdy, and a group of cowboys saddled up once more and found the cows huddled on a small patch of high ground, surrounded on all sides by lapping floodwater. The cattle could scarcely move. The land had become so saturated that they had all begun to sink, the mud pulling them under like quicksand. As Ward and his group began to dislodge the cattle and push them out, a neighbor told him about five horses marooned even deeper into the river bottom. There was probably no way to reach them, the man said, and wasn’t it a damned shame. But Ward believed there was no place in Liberty County he couldn’t touch, so he put out a call for an extra boat. When it arrived, they navigated seven miles by airboat and jon boat into the heart of some of the worst flooding in Texas. They arrived at a small river house in the woods, sitting high out of the water on stilts, with a long, wooden ramp leading to the front porch. The horses were there, all right, gaunt and sunk in at the hips, eyeing them listlessly. A stud and a yearling were submerged nearly to their flanks, and a mare and her baby stood on the ramp, which was slick with hay and several days’ worth of dung. Then Ward spotted the fifth: a downed mare, her forelegs plunged through the ramp’s shattered wood. A man appeared on the porch. He said she’d been trapped for two days at least and that he couldn’t free her. This wasn’t his house; he’d simply taken shelter here. And these weren’t his horses, either, but he couldn’t leave them. They belonged to a neighbor.
“He never even attempted to get them out of here,” the man raged. “He said he did but he didn’t.”
Ward turned the options over in his mind, what few there were. The horses would have to swim for their lives, seven miles to dry ground. They had extra halters, which they slipped over the stud and the other mare. For the smaller colts, they fashioned halters out of spare lariats. Before they could lead the horses down, however, they’d have to move the stricken mare off the ramp and out of the way. They surrounded her and every man lifted and pulled with everything he had until she was free. But even then the mare couldn’t stand, and now Ward knew why: Her legs had been badly mangled in the fall.
Leaving her in pain, to Ward’s mind, was a greater sin than euthanizing someone else’s animal, so he made the only call he could — an act of hard mercy with a pistol slug to end her suffering. He and the others pulled her body to a nearby tract of woods and left her to the water. Then, they prepared the others for the final swim.
They eased the horses off the ramp and set out into the flood, Ward and the others guiding them from the boats with ropes. Before they’d made much progress, one of the colts, green, untrained, and weak from privation, started to balk and fight the rope. So Ward climbed into the dark, slowly moving water, and swam beside him, knowing that an animal will trust flesh over metal and motors.
He swam with the guide rope, keeping the animal heading for land. When his arms and legs began to flag, Ward would grab the gunwale, catch his breath, and glide along with the boat. For two miles at least, he and the colt paced one another, until he had it exhausted to resigned obedience. Ward clambered back into the boat with scarcely another stroke left in him, and they covered the last miles, the pine and oak rising sharply out of the water on either side. Finally, after four straight hours of swimming, they made it to water shallow enough to walk through. They staggered another mile and a half after that, Ward’s legs shaking and tensing along with the horses’.
Finally, the trailers came into sight. They loaded their rescues, left the river bottom behind, and drove them to a farm owned by some kind people who knew how to cure river rot and nurse a half-starved animal back to health.
With dusk coming on, Ward and Rowdy returned to Ward’s father’s house, as tired as they’d ever been in their lives. They unsaddled and stowed their gear in the plywood shack. They put a little extra feed in the horses’ buckets.
Even that night, the water had begun to work its way through the creeks, bayous, the rivers, and finally back out into the Gulf. The flood was receding. No other calls came in after that last day on the river bottom, which is probably just as well. “We were so give out,” Ward says, “but we were proud of what we accomplished in those seven days.” He was proud of what he and Rowdy had saved. After a week in the saddle, in the rain and the water, Ward plunged into sleep, his body wrecked and his conscience clean.
From the April 2018 issue.