John Davis shouldered his way through the men gathered around the corral. The Bar 11 had a dozen wild horses they needed broke today and old man Huffy was generous enough to offer him $5 a head. Davis had allowed as how he should get $6, being the best bronco buster Huffy would find. They'd finally settled on $5.50 a head. Davis would be making more today than any of Huffy's hands made in a month. Those hands would be watching him today, and his performance would find its way via their mouths to his next job.
The ranch hands were scattered around the corral, leaning on the wooden railing. Their expressions included the usual young and admiring, as well as the skeptical and frankly unimpressed. It was the same everywhere he went. Each time he had to defend his reputation - prove himself again. By the end of the day they'd all know he was the best - or he'd be laughed out of the country.
He tipped his hat to the men, his gaze drawn to a tall thin man with features so rugged that they looked like they could have been carved of granite. Cold gray eyes studied Davis with measured interest. They were eyes that looked into a person's soul and Davis had the impression the man didn't like what he saw. He shrugged off the feeling. A body couldn't please everyone.
The day was still and hot. Dust hung over the pen of milling horses. Davis nodded at the man standing near the gate and he swung it open. A black gelding trotted into the corral and began his circle around Davis.
Davis shook out his rope and swung it over his head. With a flick of the wrist, he tossed the loop. It poised in the air and then fell over the horse's head. With a solid jerk, the day's work began.
The horse reared back and squealed, pawing the air with his front hooves. Davis leaned back on the rope and quickly wrapped it around the post buried in the center of the corral. The noose shrank a little more each time the horse struggled until finally the black stood still, his legs spraddled as his breath came in whistling gasps. Davis cringed inwardly, but the bronc was learning. Davis crossed to the fence and picked up a bridle. Working his way down the taut rope, he lifted the bridle in one hand and held the rope in the other. It was a difficult job to get the bridle on a wild horse. He made several attempts, but each time the black threw his head up at the last minute and Davis was forced to try again. One more try, and then he'd throw the horse to the ground. He didn't like to do it that way, but time was money.
On the fourth try, he managed to get the curb bit into the black's mouth. While the horse concentrated on the cold bit, Davis reached up and slipped the headstall over its ears. The bridle in place, Davis proceeded to hobble the black. Two front feet and one back. Even so, the horse showed plenty of spirit, snorting and dancing around as Davis approached with the saddle blanket. Next came the saddle, which wasn't an easy chore. He hoisted the heavy Denver saddle to one shoulder and held the fidgeting horse by the reins with the other hand. Davis swung the saddle up to the horse's back and the horse stood still a few moments, confused by the feel. Davis quickly hooked the stirrup over the saddle horn to get it out of the way. He jerked the cinch tight, and that was when the horse began bucking in earnest. Davis dug in his heels and hung on while the horse drug him around the corral. Finally when the horse paused for a breather, Davis seized the opportunity. Grabbing the horse by the ear, he twisted hard. The pain distracted the black long enough for Davis to mount - and then the real fun began.
Each time the black hunched and bucked, Davis rolled him with his spurs and lashed him with the quirt tied to his wrist. For a few minutes it was a wild ride, and then gradually the horse learned that disobedience brought instant retribution. When the animal came to a standstill, Davis hazed him with a rain slicker, sending him into a new frenzy of bucking that brought the same results.
It seemed mean, even to Davis, but the horse had to learn to ignore unexpected sounds and emotions. There was a better way to train horses - better for both man and horse, but time was money, and none of these wild mustangs would bring enough to justify the cost. Some day he'd like to have a ranch of his own - a ranch where he could run his own horses and train them without breaking their spirit. In the mean time, he'd have to stick to breaking horses the way the ranchers wanted them broke - quick and thorough.
After the third horse, he stopped to take a drink from the water bucket Huffy's wife had provided. The water tasted sharp and metallic out of the tin dipper - cool. It was probably fresh from the well. He glanced around at the men, especially that tall cowboy. The gray eyes had gained no warmth. What did it take to impress that man?
Davis washed his mouth with water and spit. Handing the dipper back to Mrs. Huffy, he motioned for another horse. And so it went for the rest of the day.
The last horse was a roan gelding - a regular he-devil, by the look of him. Davis shot a glance at the tall cowboy and found him stretching his arms out on the fence. He was ready for a good show. Good. He couldn't say why it mattered, but for some reason it was important that the cowboy leave impressed. Maybe it was because he had the look of someone people listened to, or maybe it was because he was the first cowboy Davis couldn't seem to impress.
Davis pulled off his hat and wiped his brow. He eyed the roan respectfully. It was plain as the big nose on his face - the men had saved the worst for last. They'd drifted off to do their chores during the day, but they were all back now. Sure enough, this was a set up deal. He clamped his hat back on and strode to the middle of the corral. No use putting it off.
It took him two tries to rope the wily roan, and by that time he figured he was in for a fight. The roan screamed and threw himself against the fence, jerking Davis off his feet. Davis was back up in an instant and wrapped the rope around the pole. Instead of backing off like any sensible horse, the roan began racing around the pole. Davis ducked below the rope and darted out of reach, allowing the roan to run around the pole until he brought himself up short. Then Davis stepped in and grabbed the rope. The roan was tired, but he wasn't ready for that bridle. After three attempts, Davis roped the roan's legs and brought him to the dust with a crash. Then he bridled and hobbled the horse. Jumping back, he allowed the horse to stagger to its feet.
"You can make this easy or hard," he spoke to the horse in a low tone, "you decide how it will be."
With that the roan threw his head back and tried to rear up. He stumbled and nearly fell, and then made a few quick hops. Davis followed, and finally the horse stood still while he approached. It took Davis another half hour to get the saddle on, and the horse stood still while he removed the hobbles and mounted. Davis knew it wasn't over. He nudged the roan and lashed at it with his quirt. Chuckles drifted to him from the fence, and then Davis felt the roan bunching up.
The horse exploded with fury. His nose to the ground, the roan hunched and hopped across the corral. He threw his head back and reared - and then he sunfished, turning his belly up to the dust filled sky.
Davis hung on, gouging with his spurs, lashing with his quirt. But the roan was as stubborn as Davis. Together they explored every inch of the corral and then the fence. Davis lifted his leg as the horse tried to scrape him off with a fence post. Then it was more sunfishing.
His hat was gone, and he was covered with sweat, but Davis continued to rake the roan with his spurs. Much as he wanted this thing to be over; Davis was beginning to admire that roan. He had a lot of spirit, and it was a shame to break it - if he could. The idea came as a sudden revelation. This might be the horse - the one that he couldn't bust - the one that would bury his reputation and career in one hole. He rolled the roan with his spurs and quirted him mercilessly, but the horse continued to buck. And then the roan fell to his knees, toppling over. Davis kicked his foot free of the stirrup and leaped from the horse as it rolled over.
Davis' heart was in his throat, but he couldn't let the horse think he had won. As soon as the horse was upright, Davis lunged in, leaping into the saddle and quirting furiously. The roan bucked and hopped across the corral, foam flying from his sides. He twisted and bucked and then sunfished some more. Again he went to his knees, and again Davis leaped free, only to leap back on the horse before it came to its feet. Only this time the horse didn't rise.
Its sides heaving, froth rolling off its sides, the horse struggled to rise and then fell. Davis leaped off. The roan tried twice before it staggered to its feet. Davis and the roan faced each other. The roan eyed Davis with wild eyes, his nostrils flaring wide with each gasp for air. His legs quivered as he stood spraddle-legged. He had run out of wind, but he hadn't run out of spirit. Once he caught his breath, they would be at it again.
Suddenly Davis didn't want to break that spirit. He was the kind of horse that should be set free to run with the wild Texas wind. He should have been a stallion with a wild herd of mares. Man had taken that opportunity from him. Must he take the roan's spirit as well?
Davis removed his hat and mopped his forehead with the back of his hand. That horse would fight to his death - something Davis didn't want to see. He made an exaggerated bow to the horse.
"You win," he said loud enough for the men to hear. He clamped his hat back on and turned his back on the horse. He'd better find a new line of work.
He didn't want to think about the way that cowboy would be looking at him right now, but all the same, he was compelled to glance up as he walked by. He couldn't believe his eyes. The cowboy smiled and touched his hat. The gray eyes were warm and friendly.
"Now that was a piece of riding.” He said. “You left the horse with his spirit intact."
Davis laughed shortly. "Yeah, and I just lost a job."
The man raised an eyebrow. "Is that so? Well, I guess that means you're free to accept another offer."
Davis frowned. "For what, tending a chuck wagon?"
The man held out a hand. "I'm Tyrone Holt. I own the B bar B ranch north of here. Finest Arabians on this continent. I need someone to gentle break some horses. I want someone who truly understands horses. I think you'll do."
Davis eyed him skeptically. "For how much?"
Holt shrugged. "Sixty a month and found?"
Davis stared at him. "Are you serious?"
Davis stuck out a hand. "You've hired yourself a man." He frowned. "I don't rightly understand, though. From the way you were looking at me when I came in, I figured you'd as soon stake me out to the buzzards as hire me."
Holt nodded again. "I reckon that about sizes it up. I don't like to see horses treated that way, and you were mighty cocky about it." He leaned on the fence. "But I figure you learned something today."
Davis removed his hat and studied the rim. Maybe he had learned something. In ten years of bronc busting, this was the first time he had walked away from a horse because he couldn't bear to break its spirit. It had always been a battlefield out there. Each corral was a proving ground. Maybe he was through trying to prove anything. He lifted his gaze to those wise gray eyes.
"I reckon my duels in the corral are over."
This story can be found in the short western story collection "Horse Opera."