It was the kind of summer evening to inspire city dwellers with wistful thoughts of moving to the country to enjoy the peace and quiet. About a dozen cats decorated the back step and sidewalk, paws tucked neatly under them and eyes half closed as they contemplated their own essential catness. Two or three stray hens scratched industriously if illicitly in the pansies. The dog was stretched out in a cool patch of soft dirt for some well-earned rest after keeping track of everyone all day.
Suddenly, faster than you could say "Scat!", cats shot in all directions. Yellow, orange, or white blurs streaked for cover up the elm tree, beneath the cars, or under the front porch. The hens squawked, fluttered in panic, and set out half-running, half-flying for the safety of the chicken coop. The dog, looking guilty but determined, suddenly remembered he had urgent business on the other side of the house.
Within a few seconds, the only signs of life were a couple of wary feline eyes peering out from under the pickup.
What could turn serenity into chaos so fast? My father, coming out of the house with a rope.
A cat, a dog, or even a chicken only has to be roped once or twice to learn the wisdom of staying out of reach of the lariat. It's hard for a heeler to get the practice he needs when the livestock won't cooperate.
In team roping, the header has the more dramatic half of the job, lassoing a running calf or steer around the neck or the horns. The heeler's task is to get a loop around the back legs. Heeling, as I remember my father's explanation, requires rolling a flat loop in front of the steer's back feet. When the steer steps into the loop, the roper has to be quick enough to jerk the rope tight before it steps out again.
This requires finesse, which requires practice, which requires something to practice on. It isn't a good idea to disturb the calves who are supposed to be placidly eating and gaining weight in the pasture. It isn't practical, either, to go saddle up the horse when all you want is to spend a few minutes with the rope after supper on a quiet summer evening.
That's when a heeler is inclined to take advantage of convenient targets of opportunity, like cats and chickens. After they have all learned to make themselves scarce, it's time to resort to more cooperative critters—the kids.
We would trot across the hard-packed dirt of the yard, waiting for the loop to snake across in front of us so we could step into it and let ourselves be caught. Then we'd willingly do it again, and again.
It's possible, I suppose, that we were simply more gullible than the cats or the chickens. I prefer to believe that we had a higher motivation. To us it was a game. Most little girls jump rope, after all—this was just a variation that our father was willing to play.
Maybe we were easily amused. Or maybe, sometimes, love means being willing to jump through a few hoops.