A Good ’Un
By Belinda Perry
“I got the flea-bitten gray over there. He ain’t much on size but by god he’s a good ’un.” It was the gray or nothing, and Dawson needed a horse. He lifted the half-round metal loop and swung the gate, slid in real quiet so not to bother the sale stock. A sizing up of legs, tendons, swayed backs and whiskered muzzles and Dawson knew the fat man’s words were right. He took a second look at the bronc. Small, maybe fourteen hands, no more, and real white under all those dark flecks. Dawson stared at the gray, who twitched an ear, slapped his tail, then sighed and looked away. The little horse wasn’t impressed by human interaction. Dawson raised his hand, belly high and held it out, wiggled the fingers. The gray yawned, Dawson kept up the game and finally the gray relented, took a half-step toward Dawson, reached down and bit the stump of the middle finger.
Dawson laughed and swatted at the gray, who let the abbreviated finger drop. “One to you, son.” His words were loud and the horse nodded. Dawson studied the animal; good hindquarters, powerful gaskin and thigh, wide at the flank, deep muscle above the hock; a horse that could power down a reluctant yearling or sit and spin. Built downhill though, Dawson didn’t like that, it restricted the gaits. The neck and chest were good, the chest not too broad but wide enough, the neck lean at the throat latch, a good length, tied into a smallish head. Dawson checked; sure enough the gray had one blue eye, one brown; crazy eyes his pa called them. Dawson shrugged; he couldn’t afford the superstition. The small ears were loose, letting Dawson know the horse wasn’t much bothered by a detailed appraisal.
“You doubtin’ my word?” Dawson didn’t let the fat old man know how much his sudden words spooked him. He cursed and shook his head; “Just gotta see for myself.” The gray flicked an ear, then lifted his tail to drop a pile of steaming manure. The fat man laughed; “That son’s got his own ideas but by god he’ll do whatever a man needs.” Then as Dawson turned slowly away from the gray, and rubbed his bad hand across his chest, the fat man’s eyes assessed the damage. “You gotta be careful ’round him, the son of a buck will bite.”
Dawson laughed for the connection was too obvious. He told a bit of the truth. “Got it blown off, not bitten.” Surprisingly the man only grunted. “Well by god you and that gray make a good pair.” A moment’s quiet, then; “That your gear to the fence?” Pointing to Dawson’s saddle and bridle, the rope coiled neat. “Yup.” The old man shook his head, grinned again and rubbed his jaw, “You’re suited to each other, he bites and you ain’t got that many fingers left to be chewed.” Dawson’s grin was real this time. He was learning, the old man had a kind manner and there wasn’t no hurt or slight in the laughter.
He walked deliberately toward the horse dealer, and saw those narrowed blue eyes widen only the slightest before the bland expression was fitted back into place. Dawson’s walk had a hitch. It didn’t matter on horseback, but he’d lost jobs by having to approach the range boss on foot. Which is why he wanted himself a good horse, make an impression no sane man would pass by. It was his only chance for honest work. Didn’t have much to pay out, though, which was why he came to Dick Ellis, and why he was giving the gray a second look. There were obvious problems; scars on his withers meant a saddle would be hard to keep on the sloped back. Then there was the scarred leg, barbed wire he bet. Dawson hated the damned stuff.
There was more, a wary eye, a lip torn and sewn back, a hind leg lifted when Dawson walked too close—the son’d been mishandled. As he made a second trip around the horse, he noticed that the old man was smiling, wetting his lips in preparation to speak. Dawson got there first; “How much?” No hassling or bargaining, he knew exactly what he had, and that was all he had. Ellis stared as if trying to count the coins in Dawson’s pocket. “Fifty.” Dawson turned away, damn. But he weren’t going to beg.
He felt his shoulders slump and pulled himself up, unwilling to let the old man see his fear. “Son, talk to me.” Dawson came around, not yet defeated. “I got $30, old man.” Dawson watched those tired eyes set deep in the round face blink, then look away. “You can trade me that bridle you got there.” Dawson stood quiet, then shook his head, “That’d leave me nothing to ride the son with.” The horse dealer rubbed his jaw again. “Where’d you get the bridle, you don’t mind my asking.” Dawson smiled, just barely; “Made it one winter, had a bunch of horses in the corral and too damned much snow so I spent my time making gear.” It was a horsehair bridle, and they was made usually by convicts in a Montana prison. But it wasn’t where Dawson had learned the skill.
Ellis settled his hands on his respectable belly. “Son, you make me a bridle and I’ll sell you the gray for whatever you got.” Dawson did some bargaining; “You got the horse hair all right. You give me a place to sleep and meals. Take me maybe three days.” He held his breath. Ellis said, “Sleep to the barn, eat to the café. No smoking. Why don’t you try him?”
It took a moment to set the bit into the gray’s mouth. When Dawson laid the reins over the arched neck, there wasn’t a flinch; it was when he cupped the bit and let the metal touch the gray’s muzzle that he saw it; a deep tremble, an ear rolled back, head tilted away from him as the lips bunched together and he could hear the teeth grind. Dawson looked down at the bronc’s hooves. The walls were chipped, a quarter crack up one side of the left fore. It could be a problem if he didn’t set the shoe right and maybe patch the crack with tar.
The little gelding sighed; the head came down, the jaw relaxed and Dawson let his fingers play against the lips, until the mouth opened enough to take in Dawson’s hand. Before he got chomped on a second time, he inserted the copper-mouthed bit.
The gray’s head jerked back, the crazy eyes whitened and Dawson felt the banked temper fire even as he kept his fingers in the dried mouth. The teeth chewed sideways as Dawson held the jaw without pressuring the gray. The pony sighed and opened his mouth as the bit settled in place. Dawson eased the bridle crown over those tight ears and buckled the throat strap and there the gray stood, bridled and ready to go. The fury smoothed from the eyes and Dawson acknowledged they’d arrived at a momentary truce.
The old man applauded; “No one’s been able to get nothin’ into that ole boy’s mouth. Good for you, son.” Dawson registered the odd compliment. “So he ain’t been rode in while, huh. You plannin’ on tellin’ me or lettin’ me find out for myself?” The laugh was genuine; “One thing I can say for Biscuit here, he don’t buck. No matter how bad it gets, he don’t buck.” Dawson looked away; he didn’t want to see the smirk behind that lie. Every horse had a buck. He led the gray to the fence, brushed manure and bits of hay from the gray hide. When he hefted the blanket, and then the saddle onto the gray’s back, the little horse grunted. No buck; sure.
When he tightened up the cincha, he kept a wary eye on the gray’s head and the horse thought to bite but Dawson swatted the gray’s shoulder and that was enough. He led the horse a few steps, then did up the cincha again. The gray grunted and stopped, planted his feet.
Dawson stepped up into the saddle real quiet. Easy and smooth, not giving the gray any reason to come apart. He held the reins to the locked mouth and felt the jaws grind, heard the tail swish, but there was no buck. Dawson tugged lightly on one rein, the gray walked forward on command, round the pen, stopped, backed on the lightest touch, stepped into a smooth lope. Dawson laughed, the gray’s ears went forward and the gait lengthened.
He’d been wrong, that downhill build and muscled hindquarters did not limit the gray’s stride at all. The little horse arched up under Dawson’s hands and steadied himself on the mild bit so the hindquarters could reach under and push the bulk of horse and rider forward. It was a ride like nothing he’d ever sat on before. He started to ask the old man, but as they came around the pen, there the big son of a bitch stood, that grin widening his rounded face, gate held open. “You go on, son, it’s a pleasure to see Biscuit ridden right. I’ll be waiting here with ideas on that bridle you promised me.”
Mostly the gray wanted to run. After Dawson found the brakes and the right or left directions, he moved his hands forward an inch; the little son bolted. No buck, like the old man promised, but the hind end sank down and the gray leaped into a run. Dawson let him go; when he eased the reins, the gray’s head went down and the stride shorten, so Dawson gathered the reins and bumped the gray’s sides with his legs till the head came up. He felt the jaw relax and the stride lengthened, the speed increased. For a little horse the gray covered ground fast.
It was ten minutes before he turned the gray toward the corrals. From a distance he could see the bulk of the horse trader planted in that chair outside the livery doors. Man was setting and watching. Dawson grinned and patted the gray’s wet neck, and got a good snort and a shake for his trouble. He steered straight at the fat man, who let the front leg of the reinforced chair he was straddling hit the ground hard enough dust swirled up. The gray snorted and stopped.
Dawson stroked the lathered hide of the gray; “He’s outa shape. It’ll take me a week to get him decent.” “That a complaint, son?” The two men stared at each other; Dawson could almost read the old man’s mind. “Nope.” Dawson coughed; “Whoever put the handle on him done a damn good job.” At first Dawson wasn’t aware of the fat man’s stillness until he saw the massive face tighten; “My son reworked that gray so I’m particular who rides him.”
Dawson recognized the meaning, looked straight at the old man fighting his grief. “Boy was good. Till he rode one who was more twister than my son was rider. Slammed through a six-pole fence, killed ’em both.”
Even the silence hurt; Dawson stepped off, touched the old man’s hand. “Don’t sell him.” The man shook his head so hard fat wobbled along his neck and jaw. “Nope. You ride like my son. Had an offer on Biscuit just yesterday but it was a Texas cowboy wanting a money-winner.” Pain tightened the old man’s face. “Barn’s waiting on you, once you cool him out. Supper’s to the café, like I promised.”
Dawson turned slowly on his bad leg, tugged lightly on the rein; the gray followed. A couple days of work and the gray would be his.
Dick Ellis sat in his chair, hands on his heavy thighs, leaning forward as if he could see something that wasn’t there.