Sid Gustafson / Wylie Gustafson

People & Place

Horses They Rode by Sid Gustafson

 Published by Riverbend Publishing, was declared the High Plains Book of the Year in 2007. 

~In events preceding this excerpt from the chapter called “Lineman,” horse trainer Wendel Ingraham had to leave behind his beloved five-year-old daughter after his marriage sours.  While working on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation where he grew up, he confronts his past with the help of some colorful characters.  After this excerpt takes place he will endeavor to rebuild a future with his daughter.  The book culminates in a thrilling cross-country horse race along the Rocky Mountain Front.

         The next day lightning struck Wendel as he trailed the last stray cows over Milk River Ridge — a white bolt of lightning coming out of a prairie thunderhead hot and electric. When the lightning didn’t kill him or his horse, barely even burned them, he realized his duty in the world: Get back to his daughter. It wasn’t the wolf at work, or the bear, it was the everpowerful Thunderbird.

Gretchen saw the capsized look in Wendel’s face when he rode into the ranch afterwards; empty, lightning empty. “What’s wrong, Wen?” she asked as he rode by, the same empty look in the horse’s eye.

             “You don’t want to know.”

             “I do want to know. Tell me,” she bid, skipping beside the galvanized horse.

             The horse ignored her, carrying Wendel on to the barn.

She ran after Wendel, his horse a fast walker. She came alongside and placed her hand on his horseback thigh, a pleading look in her eyes. She tried to speak something, but was out of breath, and then Wendel beat her to it: “I just realized I don’t love you.”

“Don’t love me?” She stopped and braced her hands on her hips. Her face knotted up; her eyes, her lips, her nostrils; her every feature knotted. “After all what’s happened this spring you tell me you don’t love me?” she sobbed. The horse walked on. She caught up again, winded. “I thought we were going to work everything out.”

“So’d I until a bolt of lightning struck me.” He stopped his horse and tilted his chin sideways with his hand to show her the side of his face where the lightning had singed him, as if its voltaic aftermath might be apparent to her.

“A bolt of lightning. You’d be graveyard dead if a bolt of lightning struck you.”

“That last bolt before this one didn’t kill me, now did it, Gretchen?” Wendel’s horse was unhappy about stopping. He bobbed his chin artfully, gradually working slack into Wendel’s reins, inching… then lurching, forward. Wendel turned back to Gretchen who stood miffed.

“What last bolt?” she implored.

“That bolt that hit me when your mama told me I’d had a son for 10 years that I didn’t know about. That bolt of lightning.” He re-enacted the hit from the sky, collapsing astride his saddle. His horse spooked and stepped sideways and carried him off to the barn.

Gretchen’s face came unknotted. She dropped her shoulders, dropped her head, hit by the same lightning.

Wendel lifted himself up from the saddle horn as his horse ambled barnward. “I’m sorry, Gretchen. We’re over.”

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The Trickster by Wylie Gustafson

[For Owen: The Gentle One]

From a distance I watched the coyote quickly trot away, head held high and proud, with the limp guinea hen dangling from his clenched jaws.  Another casualty boldly requisitioned from my neighbor’s old chicken coop.   I was fixated in amazement at this brazen daylight raid.  The Native Peoples call the clever opportunist of the plains “The Trickster.”  

I wheeled toward the house and anxiously snatched my old 30-06 out of the back porch closet.  I inherited the well-worn rifle from my father, along with a heavy genetic stamp of hunter-gatherer instinct.  I snapped forward the bolt action, feeling energized by the melodic sound of metal against metal as the cartridge slipped into the chamber.  The ghosts of childhood hunting excursions came dancing to life in the back of my mind.   I stumbled outside into the unforgiving January air that nipped at my hands and face, realizing that I had forgotten my gloves in the excitement of a quickly passing opportunity.  I threw a leg over the torn seat of the ATV and revved the engine, the big gun slung over my right shoulder.  

Her name was Lucy.  And I the great white hunter now was hurtling forward to extract revenge on behalf of my wife’s favorite feline that disappeared six months prior.  Lucy was our precious little housemate whose bones now littered the bottom of a den somewhere in the rolling hills of the Palouse. 

This wasn’t my first ki-yo-tee rodeo.  The farm ground of Whitman County is, for the most part, a fenceless oasis of wheat fields after years of depressed beef prices and the typical farmer’s lack of desire to husband a cow herd that would keep him from taking a well needed winter respite.  All around me spread a wide open space without the constricting maze of barbed wire that crisscrosses most of our great West.  It is the perfect arena for a coyote chase.  ATVs with the power of small automobiles make running down a coyote a lopsided game of cat and mouse here.  I surmised that in a short while I’d be back in the living room warming my hands against the welcoming Waterford stove.  But our lives are full of reversals.  

Forty exasperating minutes into the chase my hands were numbed to the marrow.  A canine thoroughbred of the highest order had evaded me so efficiently that the ought-six never came off my shoulder.  I had jumped, juked, jived and Barney Oldfielded my machine through miles of snow and stubble covered terrain.  As my watered eyes scanned the countryside at the top of a hill, I was blessed by a sweet moment of clarity.  I had just witnessed something pure.  On that icy afternoon my befuddled ego bore testament to an animal energy that had been distilled into a single focus of mind-muscle-sinew-bone all frantically and beautifully striving towards one purpose…TO LIVE!  

Simply to live.

Who on this great earth was I to deny a fellow creature his right to share the same soil as me…a fellow creature that yearned only to sing to the stars, seek the free life, breathe clean air, eat good meat and multiply?   How dare I silence another beating heart that thumped a heavenly rhythm so perfect that even my own clumsy feet could waltz to its happy tempo?  

I stopped my machine and killed the engine.  The coyote paused, looked back with heaving sides, tongue hanging out, and vapors of breath curling upward.  He was confused by the sudden truce.  The quietness of the moment reverberated across the hills.  

There have been turning points in my life, most of them measured by degrees.  But that day I was volte-faced by a jaw-jarring left hook from God’s powerful hand of grace.

“Thou shall not kill.”  

I’ll be damned if The Trickster does not sport a soul that mirrors my very own.