Is Ben tough enough to please his hot-tempered dad? On the Nevada ranch where his dad cowboys, it's a man's world. His dad wants him to "buck out" some colts, but Ben secretly fears getting bucked off. His former enemy, Fred, the old crusty cowboss, teaches him another way to "start" colts, and it looks like magic! Not only is Fred a mind-reader, but his horse is too, and when Ben rides him, he feels like riding a cloud. That's how Ben wants his colts to feel.
Ben fights fire, wrecks his ATV, and punches out his best friend, which gets them both kicked out of school. When Ben and his dad break down out in the middle of nowhere, injuring one horse, there are hard choices to be made as Ben rides for help. Will Ben obey his dad? Will he lie again?
In trying to balance loyalty to his dad with admiration for Fred, Ben learns what it means to be tough, that daydreaming and lying are not wise choices, and that he is man enough to stand up to his dad and form his own values.
The buckaroo traditions, passed down from the vaqueros, still survive in Great Basin ranch culture, expanded on in the glossary of ranching terms and cowboy slang. Horsey readers will appreciate how "bucking 'em out" is giving way to a better approach to starting colts in today's West. The author's engaging style will keep you turning the pages as you find yourself drawn right into the story.
Be sure to use the glossary in the back of the book to learn about the many terms in this story that you may not be familiar with. Reading through the glossary will help you understand ranch and horse terms, as well as cowboy slang.
As the school bus crawled away from the mailbox, shifting gears in a cloud of exhaust, twelve-year-old Ben Lucas kicked his red ATV four-wheeler into gear and headed down the dusty three-mile driveway toward home, the Circle A Ranch.
"Woo-hoo! It's Friday!" he yelled. Rounding the last curve, he noticed some sort of commotion going on in the big roundpen used for starting colts.
Ben pulled up in a cloud of dust, killed the motor and watched. The chunky sorrel gelding bucked hard, but Ben's dad spurred him even harder. A few more crowhops and their contest ended. Pete Lucas spurred the sweating horse into a half-hearted trot, its head hanging low in exhaustion.
A scrawny little man in a scruffy black felt hat leaned on the corral--Fred, the old grouchy cowboss on the Circle A Ranch. He was Pete's boss.
"Hey, Fred," Ben said, his eyes on his dad.
"Hey, kid." Fred nodded to Ben. As they watched silently, Pete stepped off the lathered colt, opened the gate, and led him away.
Across the fence, in the next corral, stood a blotchy grayish-white gelding. His ears pricked up as he saw Ben. He ambled over to the fence, stretched his neck over the top rail, and nickered. Ben felt a knife twisting in his heart.
"So what do you think of this colt of mine?" he asked Fred.
Soapsuds wasn't really Ben's colt. But he had been, up until a couple of weeks ago. Now he belonged to the ranch. To Fred, more or less, since he ran things. Giving up his colt--his first horse--had been the hardest thing Ben had ever done. He sighed from deep inside his heart. Oh, how he longed to have his colt back. How he wished he could go back and undo the foolishness of last summer.
"He shows lots of promise," Fred said. "I like his kind, intelligent eyes. I like his big raw-boned build. Pretty mature for his age." He hesitated, clearing his throat. "I've been thinking...he's about ready to start."
Ben frowned, fingering the key on his four-wheeler as he sat there. "Dad hadn't been planning on us starting him until he turns three."
"Course he wouldn't," Fred drawled. "He'd want him a bit bigger, stronger. I notice your dad's a bit, uh, hard on a horse."
"My dad's a good hand!" Ben said defensively.
"Now don't get in a huff! I ain't saying he's not," the weathered old man said. "He's my best hand." He spit in the dirt. "I start my colts a little easier. Each cowboy's got his own way. I can start them when they're younger--I'm not as big a man as your dad."
That's for sure, thought Ben with a silent laugh, eyeballing the scrawny, bony little wisp of a man. As his dad said, one good fart and he'd blow away in the wind. Ben pictured that in his mind, holding back a chuckle.
"He'll be three in the spring. It's only October," Ben said. "Of course, he's your horse now," he added bitterly.
"Yep," Fred answered. "Well, he's a long two-year-old, so I'd start him this fall, put 30 rides on him, then turn him out till next year, let him grow up. When he's three, we'll start putting him to work." Narrowing his eyes, he looked the colt over. "I'm thinking I came out slicker than a whistle on this deal. Old Soapy here…"
"Soapsuds," Ben interrupted, correcting him.
"Whatever. He looks to be a lot better horse than that old yellow gelding you sent to horse heaven."
Ben reddened. "I didn't kill him!" he said, his voice rising. "You put him down because he broke his leg!"
"And who was responsible for him getting loose and running off so he could break his leg?" Fred demanded.
Ben clenched his jaw. Sometimes Fred made him so mad. The two of them got along better now, ever since that day on the mountain a few weeks ago. But that didn't change the fact that Fred was just plain grouchy and hard-headed. And why couldn't he let by-gones be by-gones? Ben bit his lip and decided he'd best not say anymore.
"Come here, kid." Fred, leaning both arms on the top rail of the fence, nodded his head to the side.
Ben swung his leg over the big padded seat and got up, feeling sullen. He joined Fred. Now what? Fred was probably going to chew him out for something stupid he'd done. He tried to think of what it might be this time.
Fred didn't speak for a long while. Then he said, "There's not many true buckaroos left...true horsemen that know the old ways...the art of horsemanship. Did you know my family goes clear back to the vaqueros? Back in CAL-I-FOR-NEE-UH." He emphasized each syllable. "Back before my kinfolk came here to Nevada in the silver mining days."
Ben noticed Fred's dark complexion. So he had some Spanish blood. Ben knew a little about the history of the Spanish vaqueros who came from Mexico to California. "Yep. The art of handling horses has been passed down from father to son, for many a generation." He sighed and paused. "I got me no son."
Ben swallowed hard and glanced over at the barn where his dad was brushing down the sweaty colt tied at the hitching rail. He knew about the son Fred once had...about the accident that took his wife and nine-year-old boy...the boy that Ben reminded him of. Fred even showed Ben his picture--the same reddish-blond hair, serious blue eyes, scattered freckles. The day Fred told him the story marked the beginning of their new friendship.
"I've been thinking," Fred said. "I got this-here colt that needs started. I'm getting to be an old man. And I know you got a hankering to ride him." He turned and looked straight at Ben.
Ben's heart beat faster.
"And now that we're friends and all..."
His eyes bore into Ben. Finally he said awkwardly, "I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'd like to teach you what I know. Would you want to help me start him?"
Ben gulped hard. Wildfire raced through his body. Ride Soapsuds? It would almost be like having him back again! His heart pounded, doing flip flops, jumping back and forth between his stomach and his throat.
But it wouldn't do to carry on in front of Fred like a little kid. He couldn't jump up and down and yell "Yippee!" even though he felt like it. After all, he was twelve years old. Almost a man.
He stared at the ground, his lips twitching, trying to compose an answer. Finally he turned to Fred. Steadying his voice, he said, "If you think you can stand to have me around that much, I'd sure like to help start him."
Fred considered that answer. "Well," he drawled, "you can be kind of owl-headed sometimes. But...I wouldn't have offered if I didn't think I could stand you."
They both grinned. Not too long ago Fred had told him that he never wanted to see Ben around his horses again. They both had hated each other. How things had changed.
"You got a little time right now?"
Ben nodded and jumped on his four-wheeler. "Let me just change clothes and grab a snack and my boots." He revved the motor.
"I'll be right back!" he yelled over his shoulder as he blasted down the dirt road to his house, half a mile farther past the barn.
"Oh, my colt, my colt!" he breathed as he rode.
In ten minutes Ben returned, still chewing a mouthful of cookie. A saddled black gelding stood waiting in the corral. Fred picked up the reins and stepped easily into the saddle. Turning off his motor, Ben sat watching, his cap shading his eyes from the late afternoon sun.
Fred leaned on the wide flat saddle horn, his forearms crossed, the slack reins dangling loosely from the fingers of his left hand.
"The main thing," he began, "is to take your time. Start them slow." He fingered his reins absently and looked down at his horse.
"Old Black Bob here is six, and I've only been riding him in the spade bit for a year now. The vaqueros started their horses slow and gentle. They started them in a bosal." Fred pronounced it with a slow drawl: "bow-zal." "But today we often start them in the snaffle, for maybe a year or two. Then we put them in the bosal, for maybe another year or two. It works on their nose and jaw. Keeps their mouth light and soft for the bit later on."
He straightened up. Black Bob came to attention, his ears moving back and forth. Although the reins hung slack, the horse backed up eight or ten steps.
Ben laughed out loud. "How did you do that?" he asked. "Magic or something?"
Fred didn't answer but looked down at Ben with mild amusement. Now his horse pivoted to the left, stopped, pivoted to the right, backed up, then stepped forward again. Fred watched his reaction.
Ben's mouth hung open. "But...you didn't even use your reins, or your spurs! You didn't even move!"
"The vaqueros ride a horse with lots of slack in the reins," Fred explained. "You don't pull or yank. You signal him with your body--your seat and legs."
Without shortening his reins, he broke Black Bob right out into a soft lope and rode a couple small circles around Ben, then slid his horse to a stop.
Ben shook his head in amazement. "Will Soapsuds be able to do that?" he asked excitedly.
"In time," Fred answered. "If you're patient and careful. Black Bob didn't start out like this. But you gotta learn to stop that rammin' and jammin'."
"Huh?" Ben said.
"That's the way you and your dad ride. Ram and jam, yank and spur. Don't get me wrong--he's good with a horse, and he knows cattle. He dang sure gets the job done. But...he's got no fin-ESSE." He emphasized the word, drawing it out while raising his wild gray-and-black eyebrows and pulling the corners of his mouth wider.
Ben thought it sounded funny coming from Fred. He whispered it to himself, imitating Fred's face.
"How do you mean...finesse?" he asked.
"He's got no smooooooth," Fred explained, puckering his lips and making it rhyme with "tooth."
Ben silently laughed. Maybe Fred should try some of that fin-esse when he combs his hair.
"Here, get on him."
As Fred swung down from the saddle, Ben jumped off the four-wheeler and crawled through the fence. Hitching up his pants, he grabbed the smooth braided rawhide reins and stepped up into the saddle. When he gathered his reins snugly, he immediately felt the horse tighten. Black Bob's head went up and he pinned his ears.
"What's wrong with him?" Ben asked.
"Give him slack! You can't ride a spade bit with a tight rein." Ben loosened his reins.
"More! Throw him the slack!" Ben gave him more. The reins now dangled loosely.
"But now I haven't got a hold of him," Ben protested. "What if he tries to take off or something?"
"But what if he does?"
"He won't! That's why you don't put a spade bit on a green horse," Fred explained. "This gelding ain't exactly finished, but he's fairly ed-u-ca-ted." Fred pronounced the word slowly. "He'll stand until you tell him to move his feet."
Ben looked doubtful.
"Shift your weight back, just a little. Tighten your legs, just a tad." The horse responded by moving back a few steps.
Ben's mouth dropped open again. "Ha!"
"Walk him off."
He kicked him in the sides and Black Bob almost jumped out from under him. Ben grabbed leather, his face burning.
"Whoa!" yelled Fred. "No ram and jam! Just shift your weight forward and suggest he move off."
This time the horse moved off softly.
"Now turn your head and look over your left shoulder at the barn."
Ben obeyed, looking around. The horse pivoted swiftly to the left. Ben grabbed leather again to keep from losing his seat.
"Wow! How did he do that?"
Fred grinned. "He's following your body. You had to turn your body to look over there."
Ben spent the next half-hour getting a riding lesson. He had never felt a horse as responsive as Fred's black gelding.
"Makes your butt giggle, doesn't it?" commented Fred as Ben reluctantly dismounted. "Be here in the morning. Eight o'clock."
Ben drove home, giddy with happiness. He tried to digest this new way of thinking about horses.
"Dinner's ready," Ben's mother announced as he walked in. Susie Lucas's short bouncy hair was strawberry blond like Ben's.
"How did that colt go today?" she asked Pete as they sat down.
"Oh, he was kind of a knucklehead, but I showed him who was boss. Pass the gravy, would you?" he asked as he scooped some mashed potatoes.
"I hope he didn't buck you off," she said with concern. "I don't see you limping. Ben, have some broccoli."
Ben made an impatient face as he took a small spoonful. I wish they'd quit talking so I could tell about Soapsuds.
"Well, he tried me pretty hard, but he ran out of air. I've always been pretty good at bucking out a colt!"
Susie shook her head. "I worry about you getting bucked off and hurt."
Pete nodded his head toward Ben as he took a big bite of roast beef. With his mouth full, he said, "I picked up a couple of nice colts at that sale last week." He swallowed. "Might be one suitable for Ben. He's needing a colt to start. I'm thinking I'll have him buck them out."
Ben sat bolt upright, all ears. A colt? For me?
Susie shook her head. "Oh, honey, he might get hurt! He's so young."
"Mom! I'm not a kid anymore," Ben protested.
"But, Pete!" Susie argued, ignoring Ben.
"He's old enough to buck out some colts. Aren't you, pardner?" he asked Ben with a wink.
The thought of being slammed into the ground by a snorting, stomping unbroke horse gave Ben the heebee-jeebies. But he ached for a colt of his own.
Avoiding his dad's question, he said, "Dad, guess what! Fred's going to let me help him start Soapsuds! On Saturday!"
Pete looked surprised.
"And he's going to teach me a bunch of neat stuff about horses and horsemanship and how the vaqueros rode."
"But he says I got to learn to stop ramming and jamming," Ben blurted. "He says I ride just like you."
As soon as the words left his mouth, Ben realized what he'd just said. Heat crawled up his neck. Stupid, stupid me! When will I learn to think before I open my big fat mouth?
Pete's coffee cup stopped in mid-air. "Oh, he did, now did he? What's that supposed to mean?"
Ben cringed at his dad's tone of voice. He tried to cover his poor choice of words with more words, quickly adding, "He let me ride Black Bob. He moved like magic! Oh Dad, it was so cool! It was like riding a cloud."
Pete did not share Ben's excitement. "I taught you to ride just fine."
"I know, Dad. But Fred showed me stuff I never even thought of. I want to ride like that. I want Soapsuds to feel like that!"
Pete laid his knife and fork down on the table, his face stern. His eyes, as blue as Ben's, turned cold.
"Listen, Ben," he said slowly. "There are COW-boys, and then there are HORSE-boys." His voice held a sneer. "Horse-boys are always dinging with their horses, like they're some kind of fine china or something. But cowboys get the job done. A horse is just a tool. Don't let Fred fill your head with a bunch of nonsense."
Ben shook his head. "But Dad, Fred says..."
"Fred says this...and Fred says that," Pete mimicked sarcastically. His eyes glinted like steel.
Ben bit his lip and looked down. Why does he have to be like that?
He glanced at his mother. Susie shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
Why can't Dad understand how I feel? I always thought he loved horses. He stared at his plate, sighed, then slowly began to eat his dinner.
Ben idolized his dad. He had always wanted to be just like him--a cowboy, a cowman, a man's man. He tried to focus the images in his mind--Pete, Fred, Black Bob, Soapsuds, the sorrel colt in the roundpen--but they only blurred. Dinner seemed tasteless, and he left the table without asking about dessert.