What The Zen Cowboy Said

Caveat: I know zilch about horses. But I think this says something worth saying, just the same. Been a long time in coming, too.


You wonder, how could a cowboy be so much like the zen monk in that strange book your auntie from San Francisco sent you?

He rides up as the sun is coming up, serene on his old stallion, a faint half-smile on his face, and dismounts. Hoisting the saddle off the horse’s back, he rubs the horse down and smiles at you. It’s the only greeting he ever gives anyone, but friendly enough.

You ask him, finally, how he got that way. Zen, you say, and you wonder if he knows the word, even.

But he just smiles his smile a little less faintly, and gives you a look like, “A former life,” but instead he says, “Long story. Sit down, lemme tell it.”

And he takes a cup of coffee from you, strong and black and steaming, and he says, “When I was working out on the Paulson ranch, at first I was just glad to have any work. I worked the harvest, I fed the pigs, I roped cattle. And one day, I found a wild horse, a stallion, out in the field. I figured, alright, I’m going to run him in, tame him. Sounds like a nice side project.”

He smiles, glancing over at his horse. “Not this boy,” he says, patting old Bucker on the noise. The horse snorts. “It was another horse, black and huge and scary as hell. I’d never broken a horse before. But I watched the old guy who broke him in, and the next time a wild horse was around, I gave it a shot. And what do you know, I was pretty good at it.

“And then, one day, the old guy who’d tamed horses for the ranch at the time, he retired, and I took over part-time. I was still feeding the pigs, cleaning the barn, whatever. Now, breaking horses, we didn’t do it often, but once  in a while was enough for it to be my thing. A wild horse came in, they’d call my name.

He sips the coffee, sniffing at the steam before he swallows. “S’good,” he says.

You thank him, and he sees you’re eager for him to go on, so he winks and says, “Well, it lasted a little while, before old Paulson’s daughter come up to me and says, ‘We need you to take on cleaning the barn, let Jimmy do the wild horses.”

“And I’d never heard of Jimmy before, never even saw him. When he was breaking horses, I was cleaning the barn. And the thing is…  the reason she gave was …

“She told me that basically, the handles on the barn doors were too high up for Jimmy to reach, I think it was. Jimmy was short. Now, a short man can break a horse, mind you, but the sounds I heard… well, Jimmy took that phrase, ‘breaking a horse’ a little too literally. You’re not supposed to just let ’em run wild; and you’re not supposed to really crush their spirit, neither.

“No, you’re sposed to just find a way to show the horse that it can be, and wants to be, ridden. You get close to it, talk its language with your face, your body. You ease it into tameness.

“The thing is, I loved it. I really loved it. It was like… like whiskey on a cold fall night by a campfire. It was like watching the sun go down across the big sky with the sound of guitar and singing in your ears. It was something I loved to do. But Jimmy was doing it, because the handles of the doors to the barn were…”

His look isn’t wistful, it’s not angry, you realize. It’s just… puzzled.  People had paid money for the horses he’d brought over. Very good money. Jimmy’d never broken a horse before, but the barn doors. It’s good, how it still don’t make sense to him. If it did, that’d be wrong somehow.

“I wondered if anyone ever thought about moving the barn door handles down, you know; pulling them off and nailing them back on a bit lower, so Jimmy could reach ’em and all. And then I just stopped wondering, and cleaned the barn. Found a lasso hanging on a hook, and practiced with it a bit. Roping cans of paint, roping saddles and door handles and all kinds of things. I’d never had occasion to learn that skill, it was incidental, but I did.

“The lasso, it’s about this, what did you call it? Zen? It’s just you know, thinking about where you want it to go, and letting your body put it there. That’s all. It’s how people get born, how people get from one coast to the other, how people find their way home at night. It’s simple. Your body knows, deep down inside your bones, how to get that lasso wherever you want it. You just have to let your body put it there. Get out of the way and the rope goes.”

He pats his horse again, looking out at the horizon now that the sun is mostly up, the brilliant pink and gold of the sky fading to heartbreakingly clear blue, and he turns his face toward you and smiles.

“So then… when I was good and ready and didn’t need no more practice with the lasso, I got up on my horse, and I rode ‘er off Paulson’s farm. Didn’t shout, didn’t shoot nobody, didn’t do nothing but shake hands, say see you later, and get on my horse and go. An’ I ain’t looked back since, no boy. I didn’t get to tame horses for a good while after that… but I also didn’t have to stare at door handles wondering how nobody could think to move them. I didn’t have to stare at the feedbags for the horses, and wonder if that was what it looked like in there, sawdust mixed in with their food. I didn’t have to hear Jimmy breaking horses all wrong.”

You know how the rest of it goes, and he knows it, doesn’t tell the rest on account of that. How long it took, you don’t know, can’t guess. But he got back to bringing horses over, eventually. How it must have felt to ride off the Paulson farm, after all that time cleaning the barn. And though you know he’d never have done it, you wonder — because so many men would have stayed on, cleaning the barn and staring at those goddamned door handles — how it might have gone if he’d just shut up and kept cleaning the barn.

Out on the field is a tree, one that got broke a few years ago, in the winter. Only tree for miles around, so that when people pass it they make themselves a wish, and it got piled down with snow, and then it rained. Snow and ice, and then the weight brought the tree down. Strangest thing. And it’s still growing, but bent, broken and wrong, like fingers on the hand of man who never grasped a lasso, never got up on that horse and rode off.

And then you glance at the door handle.

And then you look at your own hand, and know.

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