The Horsehair Rope
(Part 2)

By J. Barrie Blackburn

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    The folly of fools is deceit (Prov. 14:8).

    When thirteen-year-old Thad is called to be the rope maker of the United Order in Orderville, he is thrilled to finally have a job. Rope making is not easy, but after a number of failures, he masters the craft. The tithing house clerk records his first batch of rope as “quality excellent.”

    That Sunday, as usual, my Uncle Claude rode his horse over from Kanab to go to church with us. He was the envy of all the young men in town in his store-bought pants and shirt, bright bandanna, real felt hat, and fancy cowboy boots. I knew that he came over so often because he was courting a girl who lived down the street.

    At dinner, Mother said, “Thad, tell Uncle Claude about your new job.”

    He listened carefully as I explained about the rope machine. Then he said, “How about showing me what you’ve done.”

    After dinner we rode over to the harness shop on his pinto horse. I opened the shop door and unshuttered the windows so he could see the machine.

    Then I got out samples of all the different kinds of rope I had been making. I could see that he was impressed.

    “Thad, do you think you could make me a horsehair rope on that machine? I’ve seen two or three, and they’re the best rope for lassoing cattle. I’ll be glad to furnish the hair. What do you say?”

    I thought about it for a few moments, I had only worked with cotton and flax, and they were twine when I got them. Turning the horsehair into twine would be the hard part. It was much too heavy and stiff to use on a regular spinning wheel, so the job would have to be done by hand. “Uncle, I’d like to try,” I replied.

    I soon made all the cotton and flax twine that had been delivered to me into rope. Brother Lamb came over one afternoon and showed me how to backsplice the ends of the rope to make them neat. As he left, he said, “I’m going to put in an order for some of your two-strand rope for a clothesline. Wait until my wife sees how uniform and clean your rope is!”

    In just a day or two, all the rope I had delivered to the tithing office was gone and people started asking me when I was going to make more. All I could reply was, “When they bring me more cotton or flax. Put your order in at the tithing house, and I’ll fill it as soon as I can.”

    It was two weeks before Uncle Claude rode up with a big sack full of horsehair from the manes and tails of many horses. He arrived on Saturday afternoon, and we went down to the harness shop and worked until dark, trying to make some of the hair into twine. Having watched wool being carded to be spun, we tried the same thing with the hair, using a currycomb to make it into uniform rows. We weren’t doing very well until a brief thunder shower drove us inside. Returning to the hair, we found that it twisted up very nicely when wet, just like our own wet hair combs better.

    The next week, I worked until dark each day on the horsehair and soon had enough twine to try making a three-strand rope. The first two or three attempts didn’t produce a very good rope. The hair was stiffer and less pliable than flax or cotton, but I kept adjusting the tension on the machine and experimenting with how fast and hard to turn the handle to get the right twist. Soon I was turning out a nice-looking, uniform rope. Each night I took home the rope I had made that day and studied it, trying to work out how to make it even better.

    I took that rope apart several times. Each time I put it back together it got better looking, and by the next Saturday I had a nice three-strand horsehair rope almost forty feet long for Uncle Claude.

    I took the rope to show Brother Lamb, and he spliced a running noose in the end so that it could be used as a lariat. “Thad,” he said, “you will make your uncle the envy of every cowboy in Kanab. Now you need to make another rope to show at the town fair. You’ll probably win a first prize. Think about it.”

    I did. Uncle Claude’s praise for the rope when I gave it to him on Sunday decided the issue. I would make a bigger, longer rope just for the fair, and I would do it without anyone knowing about it until it was done. But how would I get enough horsehair? When Theo mentioned the big dance the next Saturday, I had my answer.

    Saturday night I carefully counted the horses around the hall. Most of them were teams still hooked to wagons and buggies. I waited till the dance was in full swing and the full moon came up before slipping out. After looking carefully up and down the street to make sure that no latecomers were about I got the pair of sheep shears I had hidden in the shrubs. Standing there, shears in hand, I almost changed my mind. A strong feeling came over me that it was wrong to take the hair without asking. But I wanted that first-place ribbon, so I ignored the feeling and went to work.

    I started on the manes of the bishop’s team of good-looking young roans. In moments their hair was on the ground. I tied it into a bundle and went to work on their tails. I didn’t take all the hair, because they would need some left in their tails to keep the flies off.

    Next came a team of matched black horses. Their manes were already clipped, so I only got hair from their tails, As I finished, I noticed that one had less tail left than the other—they were no longer a matched pair. The next horses were gray with long, unkempt manes that were hard to cut. Their tails were even worse—all tangled and full of burrs. As I started on the second horse, it kicked at me twice. I added their bundles of hair to my growing pile and moved on.

    Occasionally someone would come outside for a breath of fresh air, but I just hid behind a horse, and no one noticed the extra legs. Working steadily, I soon finished the horses on one side of the street and crossed to the other. As I went past a wagon, a dog sleeping underneath started barking, defending his territory. I almost panicked, fearing that someone would come out to investigate. But I held out my hand in friendship, and the dog wagged his tail, stopped barking, and just watched as I clipped the team he was guarding.

    The shears were getting quite dull and I wished I could stop to hone them back to a sharp edge. A half hour later my hands were red, and my arms and shoulders ached from the effort, but all the horses were clipped. I gathered the bundles of hair and made two trips to hide them in Brother Cox’s corn crib. I finished, washed my hands in his livestock watering trough, and went back to the dance.

    Lounging against a wall as if I had never left. I glanced down at my pants. They were covered with horsehair of every color! Trying to look inconspicuous, I quickly rolled the hair into little balls and put them into my pocket. As the closing prayer was being said, I said my own little prayer that people wouldn’t be too angry.

    After the amen, most people moved quickly outside into the cool evening air. I lingered behind, a little afraid. Suddenly the laughter and talk outside was interrupted by a loud, angry cry: “Someone’s clipped the mane off my horse!”

    Everyone still inside the hall rushed out to see what had happened. I went out with the last of them and stayed at the edge of the group. Some were amused at the sight of horses with their clipped manes and tails. Others were not. Some said it needed to be done. Others replied that it was a poor job and would look bad for a long time until the hair grew back.

    Everybody was asking, “Who did it?”

    Someone suggested, “I bet it was those boys from Glendale or Kanab. They’re always trying to pull some trick on us. We’ll have to find a way to get even with them!” That made me feel as if the balls of horsehair were in my stomach instead of my pocket.

    Before going home, I moved the hair to the harness shop, hiding it under the cotton and flax. During the next week, I worked on the horsehair rope when no one was watching. And in the evenings, when Brother Spencer had gone home, I worked on it until it got too dark to see.

    First I soaked the hair overnight in the irrigation ditch. This not only made it clean but took the curl out of it and made it easier to twist together into twine-sized strings. When it dried it stayed in place just like my sisters’ hair did when they rolled it up at night.

    Using three spools of twine each time, I made four ropes, each over 150 feet long. With all four spools full of three-strand rope, I twisted the whole thing together into one big rope of four big strands. It was hard work turning this much rope into its final size. It came out about the same diameter as a half-dollar coin and was the biggest and longest rope I had made.

    With the rope finished, I back-braided the ends as Brother Lamb had taught me, soaked it again, and then stretched it tight between two trees to dry. While it was drying, I went over its entire length, tucking every loose hair back inside the rope. This made it even tighter and very neat looking. The drier it got, the tighter the twist became and the stronger the rope looked.

    I stood there admiring my work, wondering how strong it was. I looked forward to the town fair. Perhaps they would test my rope in one of the pulling contests with teams of horses. Someone had told me that one strand of horsehair would easily hold ten pounds. There were hundreds of strands of hair in my beautiful rope. I wanted to feel excited and proud, but I couldn’t. I had no right to the hair, and I had no right to the rope. If only I had asked!

    I tried to forget how I had gotten the horsehair, but people kept talking about it. One day at the harness shop, while I was waiting for everyone to leave so I could work on the horsehair rope, a man said, “We’ll have to watch our young men. They’re talking about going to Glendale or Kanab and pulling some stunt to get even for the horses’ tails and manes getting clipped.”

    I spliced twine furiously and tried to think about the town fair.

    (To be continued)

    Illustrated by Paul Mann