A Green-Broke Stud

An ATLANTICcontributor whose short stories and articles have appeared in many magazines, Tom Mayer now lives in Mexico, where he is working on a novel. The winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship last spring, he is, at the age of twenty-one, one of the youngest American authors ever selected for this honor.

by TOM MAYER

WHEN I was a kid we done a lot of riding, but I was never as good as my old man or my brother Jack. I liked horses fine, and was all right with them, but Jack was something special, and the old man was so good I don’t know how to tell it. Jack rode Roman better than most people ride setting, and four years running he was in the money calf-roping at the Rodeo de Santa Fe. And my old man, well there wasn’t nothing he couldn’t do with a horse if he put his mind to it. He was stunt riding at rodeos when he was eighteen, and later he was an eight-goal polo player, which is going some for a man who never heard of polo or even rode English until he was twenty-five. On weekends he used to truck a couple of ponies two hundred miles to San Patricio, and play down there with Pete Hurd and his Mexicans, and twice he was chose to play on some team against England.

In those days we had us a little spread down in the Estancia Valley, about thirty miles south of Santa Fe, and in the mornings, when it was most always cold enough so that I got goose-bumped and shivery. Jack and the old man would feed the horses.

I followed them around, being careful to stay clear when Jack pitched the hay, and nobody said much, and the loudest sound was the horses crunching grain. After breakfast Jack and the old man worked them, while I watched from outside the corral. They gentled the colts, getting them used to halters and being handled, and they longed the two-year-olds, and I remember once when Jack rode a mean little bay filly.

She tried to bite him when he mounted, and he slapped her nose and swung on, and then she begun bucking, twisting and whip-snaking and lunging and trying to get her head down. He stayed with her, and I was scared for him, but then I seen he was grinning and enjoying himself. He raked her and spanked her with the reins, and no matter what she tried, Jack had it figured out two jumps ahead, and she couldn’t shake him. Site bucked until she couldn’t buck no more, and then she stood froze in the center of the corral, so tired she was twitching.

Jack got off her, and the old man said, “Gawdamn, son, that there’s valuable horseflesh,” but Jack said, “Hell, she had it coming to her.” The old man shook his head and said, “You might of wind-broke her,” but then he punched Jack on the arm, and you could tell he wasn’t sore and thought Jack was something special.

It used to bother me that I couldn’t ride like Jack or the old man, and for a long time I thought it was because I was yellow. I worried a lot about being yellow, although Jack or the old man never ragged me none about it, but then when I was twelve my mother and the old man split, and she took me with her when she moved up to Raton. At first I missed the old man and Jack and the horses crunching grain and the leather smell of the tack room, but in the fall there was school and I made some friends and begun playing football.

I played football all through junior high and high school, and senior year was all-state, so I got a scholarship to Las Cruces. In Las Cruces I separated my shoulder and stove up three ribs in the third game, and the next year I never went out. Instead I done some drinking and went down to Juarez weekends.

I was thinking about quitting school to roughneck when my mother died, and alter the funeral I didn’t know what to do, so I went home to the old man.

Things there was changed. The old man was older, and had less hair and a fair-size pot, and couldn’t ride much because of a bad hip he got off a bucking horse. He kept eating and running a few head of Angus and teaching a riding class for rich kids in Santa Fe. Jack was dead, neck broke in Cheyenne by a Brahma bull named Bluetail, and you could tell the old man missed him. In the tack room Jack’s gear was all laid out still, his rope coiled neat and hung from a peg and his saddle gleamy in the dark light from saddle-soaping. The old man had took to nipping bourbon and setting around a lot, so that most of the fences needed work, and there was always a few empty Hill & Hills in the trash can.

But he still kept horses, good horses, even though he didn’t do much but curry and feed and look at them. One he had was a big black bastard, a green-broke stud named Aaron, that went near seventeen hands and twelve hundred pounds and was the old man’s pride and joy. If his hip wasn’t bothering him the old man would longe Aaron, but otherwise he’d just look at him in his stall, and after dinner and a few bourbons he’d say that Aaron needed work, needed to be rode, and gawdamn if he didn’t hate having a piss-ant hip.

I kept pretty much to myself, working some at thinking and some at the fences, and by and large the old man and I got on fine. We ignored each other, but stayed polite. Then one afternoon I was down cleaning out the barn, putting fresh sawdust in the stalls and flushing the water troughs, and I decided to ride Aaron. I didn’t think about it much one way or the other, just looked at him standing there in his stall pawing at the side wood, and decided I wanted to ride him. I locked the mares in stalls away from the corral and tossed them some hay to cut down on the commotion, then haltered Aaron and put him in crossties. The old man had gentled him good, about as good as you could gentle a stud, and he handled fine. He tried

LO nip me twice, just kidding around, but he had teeth could take off your arm kidding, so 1 slapped his jaw and said, “Hu, you sonofabitch, hu.”

In the crossties I brushed him down and saddled him. I used Jack’s blanket, an old sweat-stiff and stinking Two Grey Hills Navajo that Jack had said was lucky, and Jack’s saddle, and Aaron puffed and put a hump in his back the size of a sick camel. I yanked the cinch up tight as I could but knew I’d have to tighten it again before I rode, then buckled the back cinch, and bridled him with a gentle curb. The old man had said he’d broke him with a snaffle, but Aaron’s neck looked about six feet around, and 1 was damned if I wanted him getting his head between his knees, so I used the curb. I shoved it between his teeth, and he chewed on it, making a grinding, clattering sound. I left the halter on under the bridle and snapped the end of a fifty-foot-long rope to the halter ring. Then I tied the reins around his neck, put on my gloves, got the long whip off the wall, and took him out into the corral.

He led good enough, but that hump was still in his back, and I wondered if maybe riding him was such a bright idea. He was a lot of horse and moved easy on his feet like a big black cat. Once he seen a sun glint off the windmill and snapped his head up, lifting me about three feet off the ground. When I had led him up and down a couple of times I stopped in the center of the corral and let him have some rope, He backed off a little, head held high, white-eyed, nostrils flared; then he belted on me. I could feel the rope go tearing out through my hands, and I shouted, “Hu, you bastard,” and tried to snub him with the rope over my hip. He dragged me halfway across the corral, but finally I got him back, and after I had cussed him I got him going round.

A horse being longed is supposed to trot or gentle canter, but Aaron ran some and bucked more, and a couple of times I could of swore he got around the circle without his back legs touching ground once. I let him run. I didn’t care about his manners, I just wanted him tired and the hump out of his back. The old man always said, with a bucker you should run the living piss out of them before you done any riding. After maybe a half hour he was lathered and I was sweated up pretty good myself, with my hands so stiff from holding the rope I wasn’t sure they’d open.

I stopped him and worked down the rope to him. He was breathing heavy, but not heaving, and tried to nip my shoulder again. I tightened the cinch, getting it up another notch easy, and led him a little more, and thought, well, what the hell.

I swung up on him and found the right stirrup with my boot toe. He stood still a second, not sure what was happening, and it was like sitting on a steam engine with a time bomb inside the boiler. I had about two seconds to set myself and squirm once into the seat, and he exploded. It wasn’t what you’d call serious bucking, not the kind of mean bucking a rodeo horse or an outlaw will do; it was just high spirits, high, wide, and lonesome, but it was plenty high and wide, and if I’d had the time, I’d have been so scared to death after the first jump that rigor mortis would have set in. He went straight up headed one way, and come straight down headed the other, stiff-legged and steepangled and brain-shaking, and then he begun crowhopping. Not just plain side-skidding, but springing as if he had a diving board under him, and I felt like Superman on a pogo stick. If I hadn’t been licked for it twenty times as a kid, I’d a grabbed leather sure.

He crow-hopped right over to the side of the corral and banged off the boards, with my knee in between, and I felt something pop, but didn’t have no time to worry about it. Then he did a few straight jumps and throwed in a twister or two at the end before he stopped dead and turned around to look at me like he was surprised I was still there. “You moose-hung mother-humper,” I said. He pawed with his forehoof and blowed air like blowing bubbles under water.

The corral was big, and I rode him up and down it, making him walk and trot and canter. He was smooth-gaited, so that setting his trot was a pleasure, but his canter was rougher, and I guessed he was long-legged to where he wouldn’t smooth out until he was really running. He had some idea what neck-reining was all about, and when I put him through figure eights he even changed leads for me a couple of times. I’he old man used to say that is something hard as hell to teach most horses, and one that does it naturally is rare.

After the figure eights I got off him and damn near fell flat on my face the knee hurt so bad. I had forgot all about it. First I thought maybe the cartilage was broke, but then I found i could hobble, and figured if I could walk, maybe it was OK and just bruised. I took Aaron in the barn, unsaddled and rubbed him down, and then put him in the stall. I fed him, graining him extra, and let the mares back outside.

When I got to the house I come around to the front and found the old man setting in the living room with a shot glass looking out the picture window at the mountains. The picture window my mother put in, and the old man bitched at her steady for a month afterward about cleaning it. My mother pointed out he didn’t have to clean it, but then he bitched about how much it cost. In those days he had more fight. I come in, trying not to limp, and he said, “How them horses, son?”

“Fine,” I said. “I got the stalls cleaned up good.”

“I appreciate that. You been a big help. I know you ain’t keen on horseflesh.”

“No mention.” Then he sort of drifted off, and I thought maybe he had forgot I was there until he asked, “How’s that stud horse? He oughta be worked more.”

“He’s fine,” I said. “The black bastard.”

“Black bastard is right. Ain’t he some horse? Your brother Jack would sure a liked to rode him I bet.”

“He would of.”

“Well, I appreciate it your cleaning up down there.”

“No mention,”I said. “Gives me something to do.”

He drunk off what he had in the shot glass and poured another, and massaged at his bad hip. I stood there waiting to see if he’d say anything else but he didn’t, and I figured maybe he was thinking about Jack and didn’t want to be disturbed. I wanted to say something about having rode Aaron, as I thought it would make him feel good, but I didn’t know how to begin. He was always hard to talk to, and never paid no attention to me, and I didn’t want him to think I was the kind of kid that run off at the mouth, so I kept quiet, and went into the kitchen, trying to walk even so that he wouldn’t notice the limp and ask how I got it.