Black Breaking
Black Breaking

Black Breaking

by Joseph Barsch of Boulder, UT

He was in the round corral with the Soot Devil. The Devil didn’t have a white hair on his body, just that dusty flat black look his mustang mother had given him. The horse stood trembling on the end of the long-line, uncertainty oozing from him, reflecting the turmoil in the boy’s mind. “Whoa,” he said. “Stand easy, Devil horse.” He took a deep breath, staring at the horse, then at the ground. His throat welled up and he swallowed hard, choking the feeling back.

His father would never walk again. His friends had always kidded that a horse would kill him someday. But it had been a truck. It didn’t kill him physically; it just killed his ability to live.

The Devil spooked, lunging away, to dash around the ring again, flat out; running his fear into the ground. The boy trotted in a tight circle, pushing the horse away with his eyes and body language. When the Devil had had enough, and realized he wasn’t being hurt, he would begin to think again, and ask to “come back” and reconnect with Clint.

The horse slowed, almost ducking his head, showing submission, almost asking. But instead he blew again, hooves digging deep and throwing said high, dust hanging in the air. Like the dust that had risen, hovering over the mashed truck, after the accident.

Little Charley had told them. Clint had spotted him far down the lane, running the Blue Dun all out. Charley slid the old cutting horse to a stop and piled off, running blindly for the house and screaming “Mom!” Clint had caught the seven year old and held him hard, talking as he would to a frightened colt. “Easy, little brother…”

“Dad’s upside down in the truck! It flipped and bounced over and over. We gotta get him out!”

“Where?”

“Down by the shipping corrals.”

Clint thrust his little brother toward the ranch house. “Tell mom to call 911. Get an ambulance.” He glanced at his pickup, then sprinted for the tractor. If need be he could use the bucket to flip the truck back up on its wheels.

The old John Deere roared into life, and he slammed it into high and third gear, then fourth. He tested the hydraulics on the bucket. The corrals came into view beyond the grove of live oaks. The truck lay there off the side of the road, the smell of oil and diesel on the still, south Texas air. Clint had pulled to a stop and leaped off, peering into the wreckage of the upside-down pickup. His eyes smarted. “Dad?” he choked.

“I’m trapped, Son,” came the voice, knife-edged with pain.

“Dad! Are you loosing blood?” Clint dropped to one knee, peering through the six-inch gap that used to be the window. His father looked like a crumpled rag trapped upside down beneath the caved in dash, one arm twisted oddly under the steering wheel.

A thin trickle of blood ran from a bone-end protruding near his elbow.

“Do I need to get you out? Should I wait for the paramedics?”

“I don’t know! I’m bloody. My legs are gone.”

“Gone?”

“One of them’s smashed bad. But I can’t even feel it, can’t tell if it’s bleeding. My back hurts like hell.”

A plume of dust showed across the plains, and soon the faint wail of sirens was audible. But when the Jaws of Life had finally extracted Lane Malloy from the mashed truck almost an hour later, a paramedic came to Clint and his mother. “It looks like his back is broken, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

She looked him soberly in the eyes. “Broken badly?”

“Yes ma’am. I wish I could say otherwise. But there’s always hope.”

Now in the round ring two months later with the Soot Devil, Clint reflected bitterly that he wished it had been a horse that killed Lane Malloy, and killed him all the way, too. For a week they had hoped for him, but then a back specialist had taken them aside and quietly told them there was no hope. Lane’s spinal column was completely severed. They began looking at wheelchairs designed for cripples strong in the upper body. Because Lane would never walk again.

Or ride.

That was the bitterest of all. Lane’s love for horses was second only to that for his family. His joy and his daily bread came from the horses he raised and trained.

Like the Soot Devil. His mother was a mustang, but a rarely good one. And his father carried the finest cutting horse blood in the nation in his veins. The Devil showed it in his build, in the magnificent freedom of his stride. And in his large dark eye, usually so aloof, now fired with passionate resentment – but an intelligent effort to understand, also.

Clint trotted faster, moving past the horse’s shoulder. He twitched lightly on the long-line, raising his hand. The Devil snorted to a stop and wheeled, stretching out and loping the other way. He was focused now, inside eye fixed on Clint, reading the body language the boy was giving him. The eye no longer smoldered. Clint could almost see the Soot Devil’s mind working, feeling unsure in the round ring, but sensing that Clint was at ease and confident. Soon the black horse would give in, placing his trust in the boy.

Suddenly the horse dropped to a trot, no longer hugging the rail so closely. His nose ducked, ducked again, then dropped and floated six inches above the sand. Acceptance. His tongue flicked out, jaws chewing. Still trotting. His head bobbed up, bright eye on Clint. Asking, beginning to trust.

Clint stopped, turning his shoulder past the horse and halting. “All right, my friend. Come on in.” The Devil dropped to a walk and stopped, ears pricked, dark eyes curious.

The boy walked in a little U-shape, turning his other shoulder past the horse stepping a little closer. His back was turned at an angle to the colt. The Devil relaxed, took a step, another. Steadily, the black walked to the center of the ring. His neck stretched, he touched Clint’s shoulder with his nose smelled his hat. Clint stood still, knowing this was the moment. The horse would either accept him or spook away. If he spooked, things would be much more difficult. It would be a long road to gain trust.

A sign heaved from the big black horse, and he stood, his head almost touching Clint’s shoulder.

The boy turned slowly, eyes down, and laid his hand on the horse’s nose, rubbed his forehead. Stock still, the Soot Devil watched, curious, uncertain, accepting. Clint stroked the black, muscled neck, patted the withers. “The withers, where the lion leaps,” Clint’s father had said when he and Clint first started training together. “Desensitize the fear points, the vulnerable places…The belly, where the dogs attack…” He ran his hands down the Devil’s legs, over his haunches and tail. He bent and pressed the tendon on the back of the horse’s foreleg, causing him to lift the hoof. Clint caught and held it just for a second, then dropped it before the Devil could get nervous, or feel trapped.

“Come on, friend, let’s walk a little,” Clint pulled the horse’s nose lightly, positioning its head at his shoulder again. Then he walked out. The horse followed without hesitation. Wonderful. He turned sharply left. The black’s head swung, and he followed.

Around the ring, right and left turns, stopping, backing. The Soot Devil never wandered. He had found that as long as he kept beside the boy he was comfortable, he was protected. Clint had become his new leader, just as the old mare out in the pasture had led the herd for many years. Like Clint had trotted on his father’s heels since he first could walk. His father had been a leader, the finest horseman in the country. Now Lane Malloy was helpless. The leader, the provider of the family, was gone.

In a wolf pack, he would have been killed. But he wasn’t a wolf. He had tried to kill himself. His wife had found him in the bedroom, a cocked Colt .45 on the floor where he had dropped it. He looked at her with tormented eyes. “I couldn’t do it.”

Clint walked the horse to the center of the ring. He turned and held his hand out, palm to the black, and backed away. The horse stood still. Clint turned and walked to the side of the ring. His saddle hung on the bars. He took it and carried it to the center of the ring. The Devil blew softly through his nostrils and arched his neck nervously at sight of the saddle. But he held his ground as Clint laid the saddle on the sand. Fear was in the Devil’s eyes but he stood still, the way Clint’s family stood when his father was brought home. The three boys and little Becka had watched as the medics lifted their Father in his wheelchair from the van. Becka’s hand had tightened in Clint’s. “Poor Daddy. Who will take care of his horses?”

Clint’s throat tightened. “We will, sweet pea.”

And the horses had been good for Clint. The house had become oppressive to him. Seeing his father in his wheelchair in the corner, trying not to brood, trying to show a good attitude for his family’s sake, tore Clint up inside. So he worked horses. In the arena, cutting, roping, and reining. On the range working cattle. And he fed the stock every morning with the old team of Belgian draft horses hitched to a wagon.

Clint had been stalling on training the Soot Devil, whose mother had been a fury on four hooves, the toughest horse Lane Malloy had ever broken. His sire had been mellow, intelligent, extremely athletic. He had placed high in the Texas State Cutting Championships last year.

But the Soot Devil was big, brawny, the fastest colt in the pasture, and always held himself aloof. Distant. Clint’s father had wondered if the colt had any future.

Now Clint wondered if his Dad had any future. Or if he did, for that matter.

Clint lifted the saddle blanket and held it for the big colt to smell, then stroked his shoulder with it and slipped it into place for the first time. He’d bet money the Soot Devil would be as willing and intelligent as his sire, but only for one man. He’d never lay his heart wide open to the human race. But he would perform with all he had for one man that had his trust.

The saddle settled gently into place and Clint walked around the colt and carefully lowered the cinch and stirrup from where they lay across the saddle. He walked back around the horse and slowly reached under and pulled the girth up and slid the latigo through the ring. The Devil humped his back and twitched at the unfamiliar pressure, but still he stood fast, hooves planted in the earth. He turned and touched Clint with his soft muzzle, then relaxed, feeling the confidence in the boy. Trusting him. The saddle would change his very existence; he seemed to sense that. But he accepted it.

Clint stepped around and stood in front of the big Devil, taking the colt’s head between his hands. He stared into the big dark eyes, and saw the trust there. His throat tightened and a lone tear streaked the dust on the boy’s sunburned cheekbone. He dropped his forehead against the horse’s.

“Oh black horse,” he whispered, “your life just changed forever, but you trust. Why can’t I be like you?”