On the acknowledgements page of Horses They Rode, Bozeman resident Sid Gustafson presents a normal round of thanks to all who helped with the book and concludes by writing, “Without these people and the animals that have informed my life this story could never have been written.” Thanking animals may sound odd, but Gustafson is wise to do it: if not for the animals, there would be little worth reading about in this book.
The story begins when horse trainer Wendel Ingraham, having been kicked out of his home and alienated from his 5-year-old daughter, boards a passenger train from Spokane to eastern Montana. His goal is to pick up where he left off a decade before as a ranch hand on Rip Ripley’s spread. Unbeknownst to Wendel, there’s a 10-year-old son waiting for him there, a child he conceived with Ripley’s daughter. Fortunately, it takes Wendel about 50 pages to get to the ranch, during which time he somehow ends up in a boxcar with a grizzly bear. The next morning, after waking on the grounds of the Blackfeet Reservation depot, Wendel picks up a horse femur and starts banging on the sides of train cars to draw the bear out. He’s trying to prove to himself and to Bubbles Ground Owl, an old friend Wendel’s met at the rail yard, that he wasn’t hallucinating the night before. This bit with the femur is the only interesting thing that happens until the end of the book, when horses take center stage.
The problems arise when Gustafson’s human characters have to interact with each other. When he’s not writing about the land or its animals, he doesn’t always know how to choose his words. Describing Bubbles Ground Owl’s first remarks to Wendel, Gustafson writes, “Cogitation drifted to Bubbles’ mouth, mumbling his lips.” We’ll leave “mumbling his lips” alone, but “cogitation”? All forms of this word went out of style shortly after David Copperfield. Here’s another clodhopper: Woken suddenly from a nap, Wendel “brought his physiology under control and straightened up.” The diction becomes even more strained when Gustafson writes about human emotion, rather than simple body movement. For example, on the way to the Blackfeet Reservation, Wendell stops in Kalispell where he runs into Nancy, an old crush from his skiing days. This time around they consummate the relationship, but afterward, it’s time to move on. Unable to sleep, Wendel “disentangled himself from his lover’s meld and slipped out of bed to shower off the love.” Unfortunately, this sounds like a stage direction from a soap opera, something a character named Steele might do.
This is not to say that all of Gustafson’s language is schlock. He just doesn’t know how to get out of his own way much of the time. Riding horses along the Two Medicine River with his girlfriend, daughter and longtime pal Frenchy, Gustafson’s narrator describes their lunch break like this: “They stopped at Jackson’s summer camp and put the horses to graze in the pasture he’d constructed, dead-now-Jackson, bucked off, his head hitting a rock, twelve dudes and a cook watching—Jackson, their guide, dead. Bad deal. Frenchy came in and hauled him home draped over a packmule, his wrists strapped to his ankles under the mule.” The images of the head on the rock and the corpse are clear enough that readers don’t need to be told, twice no less, that Jackson is dead. And the fragmented “Bad deal” so undercuts the gravity of what’s transpired that the anecdote nearly becomes comical. Alas, Gustafson is not trying to be funny, here or anywhere else. He is earnest throughout, but nothing draws the wrong sort of laugh like overcooked solemnity.
The other problem with this book is that Wendel’s life only appears complicated. Sure, he’s dead broke with two children by two different women, but as dire as this may sound, Wendel’s prospects are always good. Nancy makes herself available to him almost immediately after his wife throws him out. She’s a real catch, too. Padrick, the son Wendel meets for the first time upon returning to the Reservation, listens to his newfound dad as if he were a sage. Trish, the child from his marriage, pines to live with him and Nancy and ride horses around eastern Montana. One wishes that at least one of the kids were a wiseass and maybe chucked a cow pie at Wendell, or perhaps said, “Daddy, I’m cold” or “Daddy, where were you?” But there is almost no recrimination here, only one dismissible custody skirmish with Willow, the angry ex-wife from Spokane. Everyone else reveres Wendel. He is the best horse trainer in the Pacific Northwest, after all. He’s so darn good at everything, in fact, that it’s impossible to believe he’d ever get into the mess Gustafson places him in. And it’s even harder to believe that once he’s in it, every last extrication would resolve itself without a hitch.
In spite of all the missteps, Gustafson very nearly pulls things together in the final episode, which offers some old-fashioned hair-raising fun. The scene unfolds largely according to a whimsical proposition from Rip Ripley, but much of what comes before is so serendipitous that it’s a relief just to get some action and suspense, to find some danger in the offing. What’s more, Gustafson returns to the sort of writing that puts grizzly bears in boxcars and stray horse femurs in his protagonist’s hands. For a couple moments anyway, at the beginning and at the end, Gustafson’s not so doggone earnest.