“… and Lord, how that black [cow]boy can heave a rope!” –  Edward ‘Ned’ Hillyard-Black Cowboy.

As the sun set and threatening clouds became a storm that took hold of the night,  cowboys serenaded the herd, using their years of experience to keep the cattle calm. Ned had been in the saddle nearly 14 hours when the “straw boss” delivered the welcome news that he could head back to camp for some rest. The ‘straw boss’  turned his horse quickly to ride back to camp just as a thunderous clap of thunder and flash of light split the sky striking  Ned on the back of his head. It traveled directly down his back, pierced his saddle and went straight through his trusted horse. Slammed to the ground, Ned’s horse was killed immediately; Ned lay unconscious next to his horse throughout the night.  The storm pelted them with rain until the morning when they were discovered by the other cowboys working the roundup. Ned was taken immediately by automobile to town and treated for his injuries.

There was no doubt that Ned would return to ranching, cowboying was his life. But, until his death in 1945, Ned never hesitated to let it be known that he had a fear of lightning. His 1919 experience justified his fear. His bluish scar and saddle, pierced by the bolt of lightning that stormy night, supplied the physical evidence needed to support that fear.

Edward ‘Ned’ Hillyard was born in Texas to parents who had been slaves in Alabama. He left Texas as a young man, riding herd on cattle headed for Walter Vail’s Empire Ranch.  Fellow cowboys recalled a time “…wherein there were no fences, [and they] arise to recall that he [Ned] was that big tall black (cow) boy of Vails” who could “ride like a hellion and rope like the very devil.” Ned’s skill and dedication to his craft stood out to his contemporaries. Black cowboys made up about 25% of ranchers and ranch hands during the 1870s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Their contributions were significant.

Ned’s skills earned him a reputation well beyond the Empire Ranch and Vail area. He was a “brush roper who could “dab a loop” on a speeding steer at 40 feet.”  Ned’s skillful use of the riata was legendary and was often shared around the campfire.  “…and Lord, how that black (cow) boy can heave a rope!  He chucks that loop just like you’d throw a rock, and he sure hits what he throws at.” Lightning was not Ned’s only close call. Once, when working a stampede he and his horse were knocked to the ground. Miraculously the panicked cattle parted around them. The horse gained his footing and Ned quickly jumped into the saddle and back to work.

At nearly 90 years of age, Ned was still working his own ranch in the San Pedro Valley. He decided to apply for a loan to expand operations. The funder, skeptical, decided a visit was in order to judge for himself if someone that age was a good loan risk. The funder found Ned breaking a horse to the saddle in the corral. Funding was approved. Mazanoche was the name of Ned Hillyard’s ranch, in beautiful Happy Valley, just east of Vail.

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J.J. Lamb