Straight from the horse’s mouth
Essay | Reining in rebellion against discipline and wisdom
by John R. Erickson
Posted 4/01/17, 09:51 am
Below is a story Hank the Cowdog author John R. Erickson wrote 28 years ago. Western Horseman magazine ran it then and it will eventually come out in a new Erickson book, Cowboy Tales, published by Maverick Books. You’ll recognize certain Biblical echoes that John wasn’t aware of as he wrote it, and he asks whether that makes “Diary of a Bronc” a Christian story: “How can a story narrated by a horse be regarded as ‘Christian?’ Come to think of it, what is a Christian story—or movie or song or work of art?” Good question—please read on and see if you can answer it. —Marvin Olasky
In 1981 I was working on a ranch in Texas. We had a 5-year old gelding named Casey that had never been broke to ride, and the boss decided it was time to make an honest horse out of him. He told Tom and me to get after it.
We were young cowboys, pretty tough and not smart enough to be scared, but we should have been. Most horses are gentled and broke to ride around the age of 2, before they get their full growth. A mature horse not only tends to resist training, but he’s strong enough to make the contest dangerous for the cowboys. Casey was fully grown, stout, and had spent very little time around people.
It was a rough assignment, and there were several moments when we weren’t sure who was going to break whom. I turned the experience into a story called “Diary of a Bronc,” but instead of writing it from my point of view, I let Casey tell his own version. Here’s Casey and “Diary of a Bronc.”
Diary of a Bronc
Casey’s my name, being an outlaw’s my game. I’m five years old and never been rode. First man that tries me is gonna get throwed.
My momma ate dynamite and washed it down with gasoline. My old man ate pitchforks and rattlesnakes and barbed wire. He never walked around a tree. He’d just kick it down and stomp on it. One time he got struck by lightning. The lightning bolt broke into thirteen pieces, and you can still see ’em lying out in the pasture.
I’m a bad dude, fellers, so give me some room. The world owes me a living and I intend to collect. If I kill a couple of men along the way, it’ll just be icing on my cake.
I want to hit the rodeo circuit, see. That’s the place for this boy: show business, the easy life, work eight seconds a week, man, throw some little snuff-dipping cowboy through the fence, and then eat prairie hay the rest of the time.
But hey, baby, I’m stuck out here on a nickel and dime cattle ranch in Texas. Ain’t no bright lights around here. Ain’t no excitement. The company’s dull. My public’s waiting for me up in Cheyenne.
I’ve got to get out of this place.
Man, these horses I have to live with around here are OLD and TIRED and CORNY. Like their idea of excitement is biting each other at the hay feeder. Ain’t that wild? Ain’t that western?
What a bunch of scrubs.
Yesterday, old fat-boy Happy took a bite out of the Shetland pony and ran him around the corral. Thought he was pretty tough. I said, “Say, Hoss, try that little action on me.”
Heh. He tried. If he hadn’t weighed twelve-hundred pounds, I’d have kicked him clean through the calf shed. Then that little Cookie mare came along, had her ears pinned down, trying to look mean. I cleaned house on her and said, “Okay, who’s next?”
That’s when old Popeye came up. He’s, ahem, the elder statesman of the horse pasture. He’ll weigh thirteen-hundred, but he don’t fight. Like he’s above that childish stuff. He’s ate up with religion.
He said, “Casey, you’re causing a lot of trouble around here.”
And I said, “You got that right, Pops, only I ain’t really got cranked up yet. When I do, y’all better hunt a hole.”
“One of these days you’re going to come to grief.”
“You gonna do it?”
“I might play a small part in it.”
Man, I laughed in his face. “You handle the preachin’, Pops, and I’ll take care of the outlaw stuff, okay?”
The old fool just walked off. What could he say?
Life’s getting exciting. The cowboys think it’s time I was broke to a saddle. This morning they tried to catch me. That was a scream. Like they tried to slip up and put a halter on me, talking that “whoa-boy-easy-bronc” stuff.
They got me in a corner, see, and thought they had me licked. Heh. I took the top two boards out of the corral fence and went on my way. Next time I’ll flatten the whole corral. And stomp on it.
They got a rope halter on me. Ran me into a chute before I could really get my destructive trip going. Ah, who cares? A halter don’t mean nuthin’ to me. I’ll just break it.
Didn’t I say I’d break that halter? They tied me to a post, see, and I just went back on the rope and … bingo! No more halter. Kind of wish it hadn’t broke. Had my heart set on jerking that post out of the ground.
These cowboys don’t give up. They put a heavy nylon halter on me and they’ve got some kind of new rig on the snubbing post. They tied an inner tube to the post and they’re fixing to tie ME to the inner tube.
That’s cool. I’d just as soon tear up an inner tube as anything else.
Inner tubes don’t tear up so easy. I fought that thing for an hour and a half, and I’m so tired I can hardly move. That’s okay, it’s all going according to my plan. Tomorrow I’m gonna give ’em TOTAL DESTRUCTION—post, inner tube, ropes, halter, corrals, barns, the whole son of a gun.
When I get done, man, we gonna have a big pile of TOOTHPICKS around here.
I ain’t ever been treated like this before. They stuck me on that inner tube and sacked me out ’til the world looked level. High Loper had a saddle blanket and Slim used his vest, and fellers, they worked me over. I gave it my best shot, but I got a feeling that I lost.
Okay, I’ve played around long enough. Tomorrow—total, absolute, utter DESTRUCTION! Cowboys too.
I’ve got a funny feeling about this deal. That inner tube has wore me plumb out. The harder I pull back on it, the harder it slings me into the post. It could be a losing proposition.
Ha! They throwed a saddle on Preacher Popeye and clipped a lead rope onto my halter. They think Popeye’s going to take me out into the pasture for a little stroll.
Well, hey, I’ve got news for them. They beat me on the inner tube, but when they put me one-on-one against another horse, man, we gonna have some violence and bloodshed. I’ve got a few tricks saved up for Popeye.
Pops is stouter than you might think.
I guess you might say that I’m halter broke. Slim snubbed me up to Popeye. I went back on the rope and fought like a wildcat, figured I could jerk Pops off his feet.
Pops jerked me off my feet, out of my tracks, almost out of my skin, and hauled me around the pasture like I was nothing but a smoked ham on a piece of string.
I fought him for a hundred yards, man, and decided that religion didn’t hurt him none in the Stouts Department. I’ve got whiplash all the way from my nose to the tip of my tail. May have to change my stragedy.
Say, baby, what is this? Did I hear High Loper say that he’s gonna climb on my back today? No way is that dude gonna climb on my back, ’cause my momma ate dynamite and washed it down with …
He done it.
He done it again. These guys don’t play fair. They won’t fight me when I’m fresh and full of vinegar. They put me on that inner tube and then they hook me up to Pops and let him drag me around the pasture ’til I’m tired. By the time they start climbing into the saddle, I’m bushed, man, wore out. It ain’t fair.
I’m beat. I surrender. They’re winning.
Actually … it ain’t so bad. Today I learned a little bit about neck reining. I’ve learned how to stop and go, and back up on command. I hate to admit it, but … well, I’m kind of proud of myself.
Loper and I made our first solo trip out into the pasture. I did a good job, I tried hard. I think Loper was proud of me.
We worked cattle today for the first time. Know what? I’m good at this, I really am, and derned if I don’t kind of enjoy it.
I went to my first roundup today. I wasn’t the star of the show, but I held my territory and did my job. I’ve noticed that the other horses are nicer to me now. They treat me with … respect.
I guess I’ll never make it to the Cheyenne rodeo, but I’ve sort of lost my desire for the high life. I’ve got a good job here, friends, a nice place to live. Maybe that’s enough.
We’ve got a new colt in the herd, name’s Chief, thinks he’s hot stuff, says they’re never going to break him to ride.
I had a little talk with him. I said, “See that big bay horse over there? His name’s Popeye and he’s mucho caballo. When the time comes, he’ll make a Christian out of you.”
The kid laughed in my face, called me an old duffer. These dadgum kids. They’ve got no respect for their elders. You can’t tell ’em anything.
I think this younger generation is going to Hell in a bucket!
* * *
When I wrote that story, I was describing one horse and two cowboys on one specific ranch in the Texas Panhandle. I sold it to Western Horseman magazine and was glad to collect my $65. I didn’t consider it any kind of important literary effort, and certainly didn’t think it had any kind of Biblical message.
Today, 28 years later, I can’t escape hearing echoes of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jacob, Moses, King David, Saul of Tarsus, and Simon Peter. Casey’s story reminds me of other, ancient stories about sin, pride, and disobedience, and of our rebellion against discipline and wisdom.
“Diary of a Bronc” begins with an honest, firsthand description of a horse-breaking experience, and confronts a truth about horses. In their natural state, they are lazy, willful, and brutal. They despise all forms of training and discipline. They resist the work that might dignify their lives. Left to themselves, they would do nothing but fight, breed, and eat.
Without the discipline imposed by human masters, they would never discover the potential that resides in their magnificent bodies.
Just as horses acquire dignity through their association with human masters, human beings acquire dignity and meaning through our obedience to the God who gave us the owner’s manual for human beings. It points us to a design that transcends both man and horse.
Does that mean that “Diary of a Bronc” is a Christian story? How can a story narrated by a horse be regarded as “Christian?” Come to think of it, what is a Christian story—or movie or song or work of art?
I think we can establish a kind of statistical grid that offers some clues. Christian literature is more likely to be structured than chaotic, more likely to be harmonic than dissonant. It is more likely to find justice, beauty, hope, and resolution than their opposites.
Of course, that is just one writer’s opinion, and I say it, fully aware that parts of the Bible cry out in deepest sorrow and despair. But our stories don’t end with the destruction of the temple, with King David’s adultery, or with the crucifixion. We are tied to larger transcendent vision. As C.S. Lewis said, “An author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom that did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”
One of the primary duties of the artist is to discover and reveal that design, and to make it fresh in every generation. When we do it well, the message is woven into the fabric of the art. It doesn’t need to be taught or explained. It needs only to be absorbed.
That is a gift Christian writers can pass along to their readers, even to those who think they don’t share our faith.
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.