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The Hunting Horse

I never should have bought a horse whose name was Buck. Actually, he didn't. But that may have been his only good trait.

It started when I answered an ad in the Bozeman Chronicle: "FOR SALE, 10-year-old gelding, black, good hunting horse, 16 hands, plumb gentle, $1,500 firm." I didn't wonder until later why the ad was in the Personals column.

After I got to know him, I figured Buck probably placed it himself.

The owner gave me directions over the phone, and that evening I drove out to his ranch. I was looking for a strong horse that I could ride in the mountains, shoot from if necessary, and who would pack a deer without getting squeamish about the blood.

The ranch squatted at the end of a dirt road on a sagebrush flat. Off by itself sat the corral, its rails sagging like they were tired of holding whatever was inside.

What was inside was a tall, black horse with the ugliest face I'd ever seen. On an animal, I mean. He had one black and one pink eye, and a nose that looked like it had been jammed against something hard and flat. As I got out of the pickup he was ignoring his hay and gnawing contentedly on the top rail of the corral. He pretended not to notice me, but I saw him give me an appraising squint on the sly.

The rancher hurried over from the house, shrugging into his Levi jacket and grinning at me through a handlebar mustache that had brown stains running down it, "Howdy. You Bob?"

"Uh-huh. That the horse?"

"That's him. Beauty, ain't he? And real doss-ile. Just what you're looking for."

"What's wrong with his nose?" I asked.

"He's a hunter. All hunters have noses like that."

"Oh."

I asked him a few more questions. Yep, he was well broke. Nope, Buck had no bad habits. He hated to see him go, just like a member of the family, but times was tough and well, you know...

I saddled the horse myself and took him for a test drive. He gave me the eerie feeling that I was riding something smarter than I was, but he behaved like a pure gentleman. I swear he even bowed to me when I got off.

"I'll give you five hundred for him," I said, figuring I'd start low and work my way up. The rancher let out his breath, spat out the side of his mouth, and stuck out his hand. "Deal." As he was counting the fifty dollar bills, he added: "Oh, there is one small quirk you should know about. He don't like horse trailers."

"He what?"

"He don't like 'em. In fact he won't load at all. I never been able to get him in one."

"Then how the hell am I supposed to get him home?"

"How far away do you live?"

"Twenty-four miles."

He scratched his stubbled cheek. "Well, if you leave now, you should make it about sunup." He turned and stumped away. I looked at Buck. He gave me a Mr. Ed smile.

Since I didn't want to seem too eager, I hadn't brought the horse trailer anyway. But I wasn't about to leave the pickup there and ride a horse twenty-four miles at night. I decided to tie him to the bumper of the truck and lead him.

Buck watched with mild interest as I tied his lead rope to the trailer hitch, got into the cab, and drove slowly away. The expression turned to concern when the rope began to pull on his halter, then to outright worry as his head began to follow the truck and his feet stayed where they were.

"Come on, Buck," I said, looking back at him through the gap where the tailgate used to be. "You do know how to walk, don't you?"

After his neck had stretched a foot and a half, he remembered, and started ambling along behind the pickup. No problem, I thought. It'll be slow, but at least we'll get there. I pulled him into a trot.

Two miles down the road I heard a thump, and the hood of the truck lifted 4 inches. I looked back. Buck was in the pickup. I slammed on the brakes. The horse slid toward the front of the bed. The rope went tight and pulled his head down between his knees.

I got out of the cab and walked around to the back. "I thought you weren't supposed to load," I said. "Look, if you promise not to kick, I'll cut the rope." He nodded and I did. "Okay, get out. I'll splice this and we can go home." I tugged on the rope.

Buck planted his feet and wouldn't budge.

There was no stock rack on the truck, and the sides were only 2 feet high. I'd never heard of hauling horses in a pickup without a stock rack--they'd fall out rounding a curve. But Buck would not leave. He was not about to walk twenty-four miles when he could ride.

So I drove slowly, the old pickup creaking through ruts and scraping over rocks. Buck managed fairly well, until we reached the first corner. As the truck turned left it tilted to the right. I heard frantic shuffling and stomping in the back and looked around.

The horse was spread-eagled across the floor of the pickup bed, like a skater who'd done the splits. The look he gave me was not friendly.

But he got the hang of it fast. As we came to the next curve I checked the rearview mirror. Buck was leaning to the left, like that Italian tower. I eased him through the turn. From then on, he anticipated every curve, leaning to the left or right just before we got there.

Intersections continued to present a problem, since the horse didn't know which way to lean. He solved that by leaning whichever way he wanted to go. I had to turn that way to keep him from falling out of the truck on his head. It was a strange route we followed home, but at least I saw country I never would've seen.

About noon the next day we pulled into the yard. Buck seemed to know the ride was over and jumped lightly out of the truck . For once, my wife was speechless.

"Beauty, ain't he?" I said.

"What's wrong with his nose?"

"He's a hunter. All hunters have noses like that."

"Well, right now it looks like he hunting for dinner." Buck had stuck his nose in the cab and was munching on the seat cover. "He's hungry," I said. "He's had a long night."

The horse allowed me to lead him into the corral and pour a bucketful of oats in the feed bunk. I dived out of the way just in time to avoid getting trampled. I had never seen lips moving so fast. Oats exploded into the air. Buck managed to suck in most of them before the hit the ground.

"He's not a conservative feeder," my wife said. "He's just enthusiastic. You want that in a horse."

Buck kicked the feed bunk with his front hoof to knock a few remaining morsels out of the corners, then licked them up. The bunk collapsed. I could see I needed to make a few minor changes in the feeding arrangements.

The next day I bought a nose bag, filled it full of oats, and strapped it to Buck's head. He chewed happily. None of the grain leaked out of the bag. I gave my wife a smug smile.

When Buck neared the bottom of the bag, he dealt himself a kick in the nose that brought tears to my eyes. Whinnying in pain, he galloped around the corral with his nose in the air, head covered with oats. My wife gave me a smug smile.

But he did love to hunt. I'll give him that. His former owner had trained him by giving him a bucket of grain every time the owner bagged an animal. So whenever Buck saw the hunting rifle coming he ran over and tried to get under his saddle.

That fall I took him into the Spanish Peaks after elk. We set off before dawn, Buck standing in the back of the pickup as usual. He had a maniacal whinny that carried 5 miles against the wind, and he used it all the way down Highway 191. Behind us lights snapped on in houses along the road.

By sunrise we were on the trail. Either Buck had real good eyes, or his nose worked rather like radar. Somehow he could detect game where no human could. When he found something, he'd stop and point by aiming his ears at whatever he'd seen.

The trouble was, he wasn't fussy about what was shot. He figured anything was fair game if it got him a bucket of oats. Twenty minutes into the hunt Buck froze and I lurched forward in the saddle. His ears pointed left, toward a meadow.

"Buck," I said, "those are Herefords. We don't shoot Herefords."

He looked back at me, shook his head in disgust and moved on. A half hour later we rode past a dude's camp. Two fat hunters were just stumbling out of their tent. Buck stopped and pointed.

"That's not funny," I said, and kicked him in the flanks.

Riding out of camp I glanced back to see the dudes holding their ears as Buck's whinny floated back to them.

About noon I reined in near a grove of aspen and started to dismount for lunch. As I swung my leg over his back I noticed the horse was pointing, both ears aimed at the aspens. Stopping halfway to the ground, foot still in the stirrup, I scanned the trees, I couldn't see anything.

"Are you sure there's something there?" I asked him. "I don't see a thing."

Buck twitched his tail in irritation and lowered his ears even further toward the grove. I looked again even more closely. Nothing moved, nothing looked out of place.

"Probably a rabbit," I mumbled. "Some horses will do anything for a little grain."

Buck rolled his eye, then crouched, coiled like a spring, and shot forward into the tree. I tried to get back into the saddle, but he was moving so fast all I could do was hang on.

The world turned green and branchy. We burst through the grove and into a little clearing. And into a herd of elk bedded down for the day. They exploded like a covey of quail.

From then on things got blurry. I do remember Buck twisting and turning, and my legs sticking straight out, first on one side of the horse, then on the other.

When the last leaf fluttered down, we were outside the grove again, and Buck was standing guard, panting, over thirty elk that were milling around in front of him like cowed cattle.

He craned his neck around and nudged the rifle scabbard with his nose, a "Shoot, you idiot!" look in his eyes.

I climbed back into the saddle and scratched my head. "I can't shoot'em like this," I said. "It wouldn't be sporting."

Buck tried to pull the rifle out of the scabbard with his teeth. I swatted him on the nose. He sat down.

I'd never seen a horse sit down before. I always wondered what would happen if one did. What happened is that I slid out of the saddle and down his rump onto the ground.

The elk stopped milling and watched. Two of them came up and seemed to be conferring with Buck, who shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. At that they went back, rounded up the rest of the herd and trotted over the hill.

I could tell Buck was not going to stand until I made amends. I got up and dug the oats out of the saddle bag and poured them out in front of him. He sniffed at them from a sitting position, then put his nose in the air.

"Okay, okay," I said. "I apologize. You were right. You saw something. I was wrong. Is that what you want?"

He got up and started to eat. When he'd finished all the grain and my baloney sandwich he let me get on again and ride back.

Two nights later my wife showed me an ad in the Chronicle: FOR SALE: To good hunter, 10-year-old gelding, handsome, black, hunting horse, 16 hands, plumb gentle, $1,500 firm. At the bottom was listed our telephone number.

"When did you put that in?" she said.

"I didn't," I said. "Didn't you?"