This isn’t a book review. Not technically, because I haven’t read the whole book. In fact, I’ve only made it through a little more than a chapter. But that first chapter stirred up a powerful memory that I wanted to share with you. The name of the book is The Faraway Horses, and it’s written by an old cowboy named Buck Brannaman with the help of William Reynolds. Buck introduces his memoir with a poignant question, posed by his youngest daughter.
Why, Daddy, do you have to go and ride the faraway horses?
She isn’t old enough to understand the magnetic pull that horses have on her daddy, and why he has to go for three or four days at a clip to help people understand their horses and how they can, in Buck’s words. “get along together.” Buck’s renowned methods for horse training were captured in the Robert Redford movie, The Horse Whisperer, for which Buck was the technical adviser. Nicholas Evans wrote the book by the same title on which the movie is based. According to Evans,
“Others have claimed to be the inspiration for Tom Booker in The Horse Whisperer. The one who truly inspired me was Buck Brannaman. His skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world.”
I’m listening to The Faraway Horses on Audible, and am thoroughly engrossed even though, as I said, I’m only at the start of chapter 2. So, I can only tell you that, if the rest of this true tale, narrated with casual elegance by John Bruden, is as good as the first chapter and a half, it’s going to be a great ride.
Buck had a rough childhood, to put it mildly. I did not, but I could still relate. I could have used some of Buck’s sage advice on how to get along when I was a kid – but not with a horse. With folks who gave me grief. And on one occasion in particular.
I grew up in south Texas around horses and cowboys, just as Buck did. My dad, a converted-by-inheritance petroleum engineer turned rancher, employed a man named Elleck Sparks as a ranch hand in the early 60’s. Elleck was dirt poor and had a wife and a passel of kids to support, with a new one coming along every year or two. Elleck’s wife, Lula (I believe this is right – they also had a daughter, named Lullu, but I could have gotten them switched) was mentally unstable, and fairly violent if you crossed her. So when Buck tells the story of his father pulling out his stock whip in a drunken rage to use it on his small sons for a minor infraction, I recall with heart-pounding intensity, the time that Lula chased a 7-year-old version of myself down a dirt road with a bullwhip, cracking it and screaming my name.
The cause of her rage was understandable, I suppose – I had just had a fight with her son, Eddie, who had desecrated our 1959 Ford station wagon by spitting on it and laughing. Dad and Elleck were at the far end of the feedlot where we had been working, and couldn’t see. It wasn’t a fancy car; no AC, standard, column shift, no radio, and only two doors – about a half step up from a Flintstonemobile. But it was a two-toner (red and white), and it was the closest thing to new that I had ever seen, having replaced Dad’s 1949 dull green tank of a Buick. Eddie was about a year older than I, and had been bullying me for weeks. It was early July as I recall, blazing hot, and the car was coated in thick brown feedlot dust, which comprised about 50% dirt and 50% pulverized cow dung. When I saw that rivulet of spittlized mud coursing down the windshield, I snapped. I jumped on Eddie’s back, wrestled him to the ground, pummeled him, grabbed his hair, and shoved his face into a grassburr patch, yelling in a fit of high-octane, pre-adolescent fury.
I climbed off, and he jumped up and ran back to his house, screaming for his mama. My younger sister, Debbie, and I ran for the only safe spot nearby – the cattle chute. We peeked out through the slats in the side wall of the chute, and waited, but not for long. A few seconds later we heard it: “Grant!” and the screen door of their tumbledown shack skreeked open on its rusty spring and slammed shut with a rattle. I probably should have stayed in the chute. It was the common sense thing to do. It was the noble thing to do, since I was, in some childlike way, supposed to be looking out for my little sister. But then I heard it: “CRACK!” There’s no mistaking the sound of a bullwhip in the hands of a crazy woman who knows how to use it, and Lula Sparks was a practiced markswoman. She was coming around the edge of the white water tank at a trot, heading right for us. “Grant!” CRACK!
There’s a small, primitive part of the human brain called the Amygdala where we receive the helpful “fight or flight” impulse that is the result of negative stimulation. I was sufficiently stimulated on the negative side of the equation, and my right hemisphere lit up like a Roman Candle. I jumped out of that shoot at a single bound, abandoning any notion of chivalry towards my sister (it wasn’t my fault – it’s a fact that boys ages 7–11 have larger amygdalae than girls, and besides that Deb was on the far side of 6, she could fend for herself), and hit the ground running down that dirt road with the sound of Lula Sparks and the cracking of that bullwhip close behind.
Lula didn’t catch me, and she never saw Debbie. But she did catch a beating from Elleck who heard my screams, heard the bullwhip cracking, and took off in hot pursuit. I stood beside my dad in the middle of the cattle lane of the feedlot, not saying a word, but watching as Elleck grabbed his mate by the hair, twisted her arm behind her back, and threw her into their shack. Pots and assorted kitchenware were hurled with abandon. Glass broke. Loud, sharp slaps were traded. And words I had never heard before blistered what remained of the flaked white paint on the outside of their domicile. Dad and I stood and watched without a word as Elleck emerged and walked calmly back to join us. “I’m sorry, Mr. Grant. Reggie. It won’t happen again,” was all he said. He rolled a cigarette from the ever-present Bugler tobacco pouch, it’s dirty life-saver ring dangling from a string in his shirt pocket. Then we got back to work.
That’s one of the more vivid memories Buck managed to corral. And in that memory, I was reminded of my ongoing need to get along. I’ve had only one bullwhip chase in my life. But I’ve felt the sting of words that have done a good bit of damage. And I’ve flung out words with spurs attached, that have brought tears. So I’ve resolved to use words – to shape words – that will heal rather than hurt. To avoid deceptive, harmful words that destroy (Psalm 10:7; James 3:8). To confess that, while we may “put bits in the mouths of horses, to guide their entire bodies” (James 3:3), there isn’t a bit designed that can harness a man’s tongue. And to follow the example of the Soul Whisperer when He said through the apostle Paul, “let your words be gracious, seasoned with salt…” (Colossians 4:6).
So, thanks, Buck. I’m ready to saddle up for another chapter.