“Push me up!” Susan scowled from her perch, halfway up the ladder to the high seat on the hay wagon. She was fairly heavy, and her skin-tight oversize western jeans created a fairly intimidating view of her backside, hanging precariously in mid-air. She was stuck there and couldn’t quite get enough traction to launch her abundant figure up the next long rung on the ladder.
“I said, someone PUSH ME UP!”
I was closest to her rear end. I could have reached it handily from my height and would have easily launched her to the objective. But I just couldn’t get myself to do it. Putting my hands on a gal’s buttcheeks crossed all the lines of ‘off limits’ in my mind. I looked over at Melanie. She glared back at me with her best “No way!” look.
My other two girls conveniently looked away.
I looked beyond them to the cabin across the hot dirt of the barnyard. There were three weathered and dirty cowboy-hatted older men cooling in the shade of the porch, sipping cold Bud from cans, and squirting out tobacco juice into the dirt out front. There were a few empty aluminums already gathering on the uneven floorboards. Even in the shaded gray of the shadowed porch, I could see that they were all grinning. They sat, silent and invisible. Wondering how this was going to work out. I could tell by their looks that this kind of entertainment was typical.
Susan’s leg began to tremor, probably in a lactic acid spasm, like she was operating a treadle sewing machine. There was no graceful exit. Backwards could be ugly; she couldn’t see the next step downward. She now shrieked: “HEEEEYYYY!”
The cabin screen door immediately erupted open, and abruptly slammed as Susan’s son darted through the brief opening, sprinting onto the scene. He knew just what to do and never broke stride, using his approach momentum with hands extended, palms out and upraised like a Pentecostal worshipper.
And they clapped resoundingly on to their intended target: one hand on each cheek, launching Susan into her rightful place on the broad wagon seat. She nonchalantly grabbed and straightened the old horse-and-hand-sweat-stained lines in her hand, as if it was always like this. And then called down to me: “Shotgun?”
I nodded and jumped up into the seat next to her. I called down at Melanie, Abby and Linnaea and told them to jump on, and after a light snap of the lines by Susan, we were off into the hot sun roadways of southern Montana.
The two blonde haired Belgian draft horses stepped purposefully forward, leaning hard into their collars and traces. In a few minutes, we left the dirt and hit pavement. The heat shimmered off in waves from the undulating up and down road surface, creating mirages in the long view we beheld from atop each hill under the Big Sky.
Jingle, the wild-eyed and quite massively muscular gelding half of the team, was definitely agitated. He was ready to run. Even if it meant to the full detriment of his partner, Belle, and all of us aboard the wagon. He would at first happily gallop, escalating in excitement, running like the hot summer wind that coursed around him and defined his wild demeanor. Then he would cross the line: the excitement would become turbocharged with the gasoline of terror as the world around him unraveled in the wreckage of high-speed horse in harness. I could read all of this, as could my three daughters, exhibited by their furtive glances between my eyes and the horses. We had all been to the halls of horse horror. It rarely ended well. They were prey animals after all, and the go-to option for every equine, when all else failed, was always the “R” word: RUN.
It was what kept their ancient predecessors alive when the chips were down. Wolves running hard at their heels. Tornadoes tearing across prairie. Wildfire driven by wind. The massive grizzlies stalking along the watercourse.
Susan downplayed all of this with a pasty smile. “Jingle is a little excitable. He’ll calm down eventually. Belle is very calming to him.” She grinned again, and glanced a little nervously at me, and continued: “Belle is only around 7 years old, and Jingle is even younger. I named them that, by the way, because my boyfriend at that time gave them to me for Christmas!”
“Why would you want to get rid of them then?” I quietly asked.
“We just have too many horses around here…” Susan said, and kind of drifted off into some kind of mindless sales pitch. She was thinking about something else, and the horse trader pre-recorded drivel was taking over.
I looked her in the eye, and then I noticed the pained look on her face as she repeatedly glanced down to her hands. I followed.
Her knuckles were bleach-white. No blood flow to be seen. She was holding onto the lines for dear life, trying to hold the gelding back from a run. I knew she didn’t have much hold left in her, judging by the color of her hands, and things were going to get especially bad because we had a long downhill in front of us. We were almost cresting one of the big rolls of the Montana great-plains landscape with the trotting team.
“Would you mind if I drove them?”
“Well–no thanks…I’m good.” Then after a moment, she looked at me, my hands and then at the horses, and then at the hill, and handed the lines over.
I took lines in my hand and felt the tremendous bit-pull that Jingle had on them. It was just a snaffle bit she had in his mouth, and it was the easiest bit she could have put in there. But Jingle knew this game; he simply had his teeth locked around it, and by sheer willpower in the jaw vise he had on it, he felt no check from the bit. His Majesty, the newly crowned King Jingle, was largely in control and he knew it. I found myself quite literally holding back a one-ton draft horse by keeping my grip on his head through his locked teeth. He pulled on painlessly and gave me no grace.
His muscles glistened with sweat and rippled in the sunshine. The engine of this ship had taken over.
No wonder Susan gave up the lines.
But even with my hold on him, we were increasing in speed. I couldn’t figure out why. We had managed a few downhills already on our short jaunt. How could Susan have held them back better than I? I was doing all I could. And now, there was a semi-truck coming up the hill toward us, with a fair amount of speed.
We were starting to wobble, rickety wagon oscillating as it built up speed that it was not made for. I could feel the girls’ stare on my back, as they knew and knew that I knew it was not looking good. We began to pitch and roll over the double yellow line.
And then Susan, now wilting, pulled her wild card–her hidden ace up her sleeve. It was her horse trader dirty secret, and she knew it. I think she was getting terrified enough to know that she had to show her hand—wreckage was imminent.
The girls and I knew she was a trader, and we came to meet here knowing that immediately (I could tell on the phone). It’s not like it was something we spoke about. We all just knew it: the horses would be bought from her on their own merits, and none that Susan stated. Horse and cattle traders had earned a categorical scoundrel-ness that ran through their blood; it was simply unavoidable. They weren’t all like that, but most were. Their expert proclamation of things like age and training were fairly meaningless (Belle looked more like 15 years old than 7). They scented money and valued the deal over all else. They would happily sell a 5-year old boy a gelding that would unabashedly buck bambino to the sky as soon as the little boy’s parents got him home.
She reached down and pulled her un-needed jacket to the side over the floorboards and nudged me on the elbow. Her eyes met mine and led mine to the floor. “Brake pedal.”
Sure enough. Her wagon had its own hydraulic brake system. I’d heard of these but had never seen one before. She had kept it hidden in an effort to show how controllable the horses were—while the brakes were being continuously applied.
I slipped my foot over to the brake pedal and pushed hard and even. We came into control, and back from the brink, Jingle straining against the added resistance of the brake system. The girls breathed a sigh of relief as the Peterbilt roared past.
We were alive and would likely stay that way.
Susan halted her sparkling conversation and looked at the way forward. We talked a little about ranching and horses. I turned the team around in a field along the road, and made the big flaxen maned drafts walk—not trot—back to her ranch.
As we pulled up to the hitching rail, Susan’s son met us, and grabbed halter ropes of the horses. The old boys had a few more cans on the boards, and still smiled, looking on in silence.
They’d all been here and done this. Susan was an operator, after all and there was nothing new under this part of the Montana Big Sky.
We helped Susan pull harness gear and talked as we did so. She didn’t have many words at this point in time. Could it be possible that she was feeling sheepish?
I thought not.
The horses were pasted with sweat from their short jaunt; after all, dragging that wagon weight with brakes nearly locked was akin to plowing a small field. The girls and I gently rinsed them down with the cool of a garden hose—at first, Jingle went a little blitzoid with the hose and the water, but he calmed down and began to revel in the rub and cool of the massage. He went from jumpy to almost jiving with the attention.
As we turned them into the corral, the girls started heading back to our pickup with Susan. I hung back for a few moments to watch the team. Belle just went to grab a drink; Jingle trotted off to get away, and whipped around in the sun, glistening, staring at me.
He was standing his ground. I climbed the fence, quietly but purposefully and he still stood, shaking, as I approached him quietly and stroked his neck for a few nervous moments. His eye spoke mistrust, and his head was high. There was fire in his eyes, and wild in his soul.
And for that reason, he had my heart. Sure, he would be a handful; we’d certainly have some wrecks. But he would die for me if I had his heart—if I could earn it.
In a few moments, he had enough of human. He blew some snot as he wheeled around and trotted off, high headed, over to the quiet Belle.
Back in the barnyard, Susan had split off from my daughters, and was talking with the old boys on the porch, and I headed for the girls. We had a short conference, and we all agreed; the team of “blondies” as we would always call them, were just right. Belle was sweet, quiet and compliant; Jingle was essentially a firestorm, a ticking time bomb of equine prowess and muscle.
I went back to the porch and the cowboys and Susan halted their conversation.
“So, Susan—we’ll sure take them.”
“Yep. Given the following.” I told her the conditions of the deal. Five hundred down, and the total would be thirty percent less than she was asking, and she would load them in her trailer and deliver them to Alderspring, over five hours away, at which point she’d be paid in full.
She agreed, cracked a broad smile, and reached out her hand.
Even with my terms, she was still making money on them. And I was good with it.
We had Jingle on the ranch for nearly ten years. He and Belle worked together well. It took a while to earn Jing’s trust, but we certainly did. He would listen to us, ears back, as we spoke to him from the hay wagon. Certainly, we had a few wrecks that required mending of leather and steel, but none of them were permanent ruination for either the physical or mental—in the mind of a horse. After a little time with Jing in counseling, usually in the round pen, we’d be able to move on. None of it ever was punishment—that would never work for him. I’m thinking a previous owner likely tried that, and almost succeeded in driving Jing hopelessly away from any human. Jing was always very sensitive; it was always about re-earning his trust.
And that had to be his idea. And then he would lay down his king-crown at your feet. And once you had his heart, well, he would do anything for you.
I was hauling cattle under the big sky of Montana when I got the phone call. It was Caryl. One of the girls found Jing dead that morning, out on the big meadows. There was no sign of struggle; it looked like his heart just gave out.
He had never gotten tame, you know. He was always a wild horse and would be forever. But he had let us into his heart, vast and rugged as this mountain valley where he lived.
I wouldn’t have had it any other way.