By J. Bryan Wasson
Sometimes an event is so far from the norm that it just sticks in our minds. This was the case with what I called the mystery riders.
My parents bought a house at 1502 Oak Street in Abilene, Texas back in about 1945. This house was on the far south edge of town at that time. The street only went for about five additional blocks and you were out of town. Everything south and east was farm land and Mesquite pasture. In fact there was a Mesquite pasture directly across the street (east) from our house. I had that pasture rented for my horse. A few blocks west of us, the city limits made a jog and went five or six additional blocks south. Again beyond that, everything was farm land and Mesquite pasture.
We had a large garden behind our house. There was a barn, cow lot and chicken pen. In addition to my horse, we had a milk cow and chickens. I dearly loved the long eared equine in those days, but my parents failed to see any reason I should own such a critter. Although we had the advantages of living in town, our location near the southern edge of Abilene was much like living out in the country. This was my kind of living. Little did we know that within the next couple of years we would see the city develop and grow all around us?
It was not uncommon in those days for city houses to have a barn behind them. Many people had milk cows, horses and chickens within the city limits. Oh, how things have changed.
About five miles north and west of us was a large area of Mesquite pasture that was unfenced on the north side. I estimate the area was a section (640 acres) or more. I was not mature enough in the ways of urban sprawl to realize at the time that when a fence was removed from pastures or farm land, it was the first sign of development to come.
To a teenage boy on horseback, this wide expanse of pasture land was unexplored territory. As far as I was concerned, no human being had ever set foot on this vast wilderness of Mesquite trees and Buffalo grass. I often explored this pasture alone. Sometimes my horseback riding friends would join me as we rode the rangelands of yesteryear.
One day I was sitting on our front porch. It was not unusual to see horseback riders and occasionally a wagon pulled by a team of horses or mules in town in those days, but what I saw was a bit unusual.
Headed south right in front of our house were four young horseback mounted men. I estimated them to be in their late teens or early twenties. Each man was leading a pack mule. One man in addition to the pack mule was leading two extra horses. Except in the Saturday afternoon movies, I had never seen such a sight.
I watched as they rode out of sight to the south. I pondered on the meaning of this event for a while, but soon it faded from my mind as more immediate things such as feeding my horse, the cow and the chickens consumed my thoughts.
A couple of weeks later, I went horseback riding with a couple of my friends. We decided to further explore the uncharted expanse of unfenced mesquite pasture. When we were rather deep into the thick Mesquite, we came upon a strange sight. We were looking at a camp. There was a large tent set up. It was about the size as what the U.S. Army calls a Squad tent. In fact that is most likely what it was. Rope had been strung between trees to form a rather large rope corral. Four mules and two horses were grazing in the corral. The grass was good and the Mesquite beans were plentiful.
We started yelling, “Hello the camp.” That is the way they did it in the western movies. It seemed that no one was home as we received no response to our calls. We got a little braver and rode closer to the tent. We dismounted and tied our horses to trees. It is hard to knock on the door of a tent. I was very reluctant to enter the tent, but with a little urging from my friends, we entered the tent.
There were four canvas Army type cots set up inside. Bed rolls were unrolled on the cots. A rope was strung between tent poles. A few shirts, four yellow slickers, and a couple of towels were hung on the rope. Over in one corner was a big pile of Mesquite beans that I am sure had been gathered as feed for the animals. I was rather uneasy. I did not want the folks who were living in this tent to come home and find us inside. I said, “Let’s get out of here.” I was the first one out of the tent.
From time to time, I would see a single rider, sometimes two riding in front of our house, headed north toward town. I sometimes saw this scene repeated headed south toward the camp site. I never saw all four of them together again.
Both alone and with my friends, I continued to explore this pasture. I did not, however, get so close to the camp of the mystery riders as before. I would creep up through the Mesquite brush and peek through just to see if the tent was still there.
These four mystery riders remained camped at that location for a year or more. They were gone by the time the bulldozers came to take further steps toward more urban sprawl.
The only thing that is sure about these mystery riders is that I don’t know where they came from or where they went. Were they on the run from the law? Were they criminals, jail escapees? Maybe they were folks just like me who did not like to see the city growing around them and were just trying to escape urban development.
My own personal suspicion is they were avoiding the military draft. World War II was over, but the military draft was still in effect. Most young men in those days who were not working or were not in school were serving in the Armed Forces. One thing is for sure. These mystery riders were on an adventure and I would bet they enjoyed every minute of it.
Note: This story has previously been published in The Brayer, official publication of The American Donkey and Mule Society.