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One Good Horse
By Tom Groneberg
Scribner Copyright © 2006 Tom Groneberg
All right reserved.
WHAT'S PAST IS PROLOGUE.
-- WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE,
In trots the colt. Look at him. Beautiful and nameless. A coming two-year-old. His black mane traps the sunlight, his coat still shaggy from winter. Eyes bright, mischievous, like a little boy waiting to pull a trick. Like me, he is full of wonder and a little scared. He trots around the small round corral, showing off a bit, kicking at a cloud. And then he stops and turns toward me, breathing me in. Waiting. Waiting for the heavy spring clouds to lift and reveal the heights of the Mission Mountains. Waiting for the shadows of returning birds to paint the land gray. I remember how the lake, now like poured lead, turns summer chrome. I remember it all, sometimes, just before I go to bed.
Memory is a narcotic. The outstretched arms of a souvenir as it beckons you to remember, to dream. In this life, you are promised nothing, and everything.
I look back sometimes, and though I recall vague outlines, I cannot remember the specific shape of things that were once so important in my life. A boss's face, the sound of a cast-iron triangle calling wranglers and sleepy-eyed dudes to breakfast in an aspen-gold Colorado meadow, the way the bottom of a horse's hoof looks like a charcoal heart. In my twenties, I fell in love. Everything happened so fast, I'm not sure what I fell in love with first: the horse, the girl, or the land. I know for certain I loved the girl the most and that everything good flowed from that love. After we graduated from college, Jennifer and I moved west together, searching for a life to call our own. Two years later, we were married. Another five years found us on a ranch in southeastern Montana, fifteen square miles of shortgrass and sagebrush and space that I never could contain, no matter how much fence I built. The ranch failed me, and I failed the ranch. Running the place was more than I could manage, like some anxiety nightmare, a test I couldn't pass. And I thought that having to sell out and leave those dreams behind was the break in my heart that I would nurse the rest of my life. We were just beginning to talk about having kids, about starting our family. Carter was born on New Year's Eve, six years ago. It seems only a hoofbeat ago, a lifetime.
New Year's Eve. It's a good time to look forward and back and try to see how far you've come. I write Carter letters to try to capture time, to hold it for a while, with words. There is so much I want to tell him, so many things I want to say. Balancing between this year and last, I can't remember what I've written in the past. I imagine, read back to back, the letters pin me down as a repetitive old man, a bore spouting the same stale stories about the state of the world and our little place in it. What I'm really trying to do is to tell Carter how much I love him and his mother, to make up for all of the times I've forgotten to say it out loud. Now, I can't imagine there is anything left to say. Or, maybe, there is too much. I know it won't fit on a page or two, won't wait for the day when my son opens the wrinkled envelopes and smoothes each page, the years unfolding.
When Carter tries to tell a story and it all comes out at once and he gulps air like he is drowning in words, Jennifer tells him, "Do your best. Use your words. Go slow." I am not too proud to take advice meant for a little boy.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Groneberg
INVENTING A STORY WITH GRASS,
I FIND A YOUNG HORSE DEEP INSIDE IT.
-- JAMES DICKEY,
The autumn moon rises full and blue and marbled over the Mission Valley. In a barn, at the end of a lane, the mare grunts, lies on her side, stands, lies back down. The man is there, watching from the shadows, his rough hands ready to go to work if there are any problems. His son, Clay, stands alongside in all his red silence. After thirty minutes of labor, the slick black narrow thing slips into the straw of the stall. The mare looks over her shoulder, nuzzles the foal, then rocks to her feet. The man nods, says "That's a girl," and heads back into the house for some fresh coffee, copper-haired Clay trailing behind.
The colt looks even blacker when it begins to snow a month later. Winter settles into the valley, the snow falling everywhere. The colt nuzzles his mother, her milk warming his belly. She shelters him from the wind when it blows cold and wet from the lake. On New Year's Eve, fireworks shotgun the midnight sky. The colt looks up at the bright sparks falling, falling. He is now able to run circles around the small pasture by the barn without slipping from the slick snow and from his own young clumsiness.
When there is nothing but April mud left in the pasture, the men move the colt, his mother, and the other mares and foals across the highway to the big field alongside the lake.
In May, the swampy ground is a riot of sweet clover and sego lilies, skunk cabbage, and cattails. The colt seems to grow with the sun, from the moment its light breaks across the tops of the mountains to the east. Rampant and wild, he runs with his little brush of a tail held high, shaking his head and kicking at nothing.
By late July, the colt is all knees and nose, a coming yearling. The men call him Black, though he isn't as black as when he was first born. He spends most of his waking hours grazing, his front feet spread wide so he can reach the low grass. And though he's weaned from her, the colt often stands alongside the mare, a shadow of her, watching the other horses, watching the clouds above and the wind in the cottonwood trees.
The grass didn't have much of a chance to grow this year, and some of the horses stand, gaunt and ribby, in the fading summer light. It never got so bad that the sheriff had to come out and inspect the horses for abuse, but there was talk. Some called it horse hoarding, having too many animals to care for. Others just called it bad luck.
Early one morning, four men ride through the pasture on horseback. They push the loose horses to the small barbed-wire enclosure in the southeast corner of the field, where another man spreads hay on the bare ground, calling out, "Hey, hay." The herd moves to the pen, strung out in a long line of horses of different colors and sizes. Brown-and-white paints, a black Thoroughbred, the blue roan. Most of the mares are bred, with foals at their sides. Some of the older horses are lame and defeated, limping after the younger, fitter horses. Once the herd is gathered from the big pasture, the men on horseback listen as the man on foot tells them which horses to turn back out. "That big paint goes," he calls out, pointing, "and that buckskin and the black colt." In all, forty horses are turned back into the big pasture and the wire gate is closed. The hundred head that remain are pushed, ten at a time, into the wooden pen. The men use stock whips and nylon ropes and swear words to load five horses into each trailer. Diesel engines idling. Hoppers practicing their grass dance at the men's feet.
Once the horses are loaded, they are driven sixty miles north to the auction yard in Kalispell. They are sold on a Wednesday. Old and young, the paints, the Thoroughbreds, registered and grade. They sell for next to nothing, run through the ring without saddle or sales pitch. Most are bound for the cannery.
Back home, the not-so-black colt clips the scant dry grass with his twelve milk teeth, not knowing the fate of his siblings or his mother or himself. Knowing only grass and light.
September, and my in-laws are visiting from Chicago. After dinner, my father-in-law, Fred, and I drive to the little bar and restaurant out on the highway for a drink, maybe a quiet game of pool. It's a rural Montana bar that caters to fishermen and construction workers and retirees. Huge lake trout hang, stuffed and mounted, along the upper reaches of the walls. Below, vintage fishing poles and treble-hooked lures are nailed alongside framed photographs of volunteer fire department picnics taken long before I joined the department. It's the perfect place for some conversation and a beer or two. But when we get there, the parking lot is full.
"Friday night," Fred says.
But even so, the bar is rarely ever crowded. I pull across the highway and park my truck in front of the fire hall. "You don't have to lock it," I tell Fred. We walk across the pavement to the bar. "I've never seen it this busy."
Inside, a small sound system has been set up in front of the short wall of video poker and keno machines. It's karaoke night. A three-ring binder filled with song lyrics passes from hand to hand. Fred buys us the first round and, as he hands me the bottle, he says, "They tried to put an olive in my beer."
"Local custom," I say. "Cheers." We clink our bottles together and find a place to watch and listen. First, a woman does her best to channel Mariah Carey. Next, a nervous college kid tries to imitate Bob Dylan. After a brief break, two men stand there, microphones in hand. I recognize the shorter one, he works at the bank in town. But the other man is a stranger to me. He has a full mustache and is wearing a black felt cowboy hat, Wranglers, and leather boots. The music to a Righteous Brothers song begins. The soundtrack swells, the bar noise quiets, and for a moment the cowboy's voice rises above us all. It's so beautiful and sad that, even in the hot, crowded bar, I feel a little chill. And then it is over.
Fred leans in close. "Who's that?"
I shrug. "Don't know."
The man running the sound equipment looks like a stand-in for Burt Reynolds. He picks up a microphone and says, "We'll take a short break and have some more karaoke fun in fifteen minutes."
Fred and I finish our beers and I get us another round. "Who was that singing?" I ask the bartender. "The one with the cowboy hat?"
"That's Bob Dog," he says. "Runs Three Dog Down. You want olives with these?"
"No, thanks." I hand Fred his beer and say, "That cowboy runs a place that sells down comforters on the edge of town." And, since the music has stopped and my tongue is loosened by the beer, I tell Fred what's on my mind. "Jen and I have been thinking about getting you another grandchild, a little brother or a sister for Carter."
Fred is the father of two girls, so I hope he can reassure me that another child won't ruin Carter's world.
Fred says, "Don't worry. You won't have to share the love you have for Carter with another child. Your love grows."
I nod. It's what I wanted to hear, but still, I'm skeptical. I think about love's ability to expand. I imagine a red balloon. A baby growing inside Jennifer. I picture more balloons, some are baby blue, others pink. Labor and birth, our family getting larger. I imagine balloons of all colors floating above the dining room table, which is loaded with presents, bowls of ice cream, and a large cake. I can hear my own voice, mouthing the words to someone else's song, as the flames on the candles dance.
"Here's to more kids," Fred says, raising his beer in a toast. I take a long, deep drink. And then Fred says quietly, "God, he had a beautiful voice."
The colt has always stood out among the other young horses, for no other reason than he was born in the fall. He is fourteen months old, now, still intact and unbranded, smaller than the two-year-olds but larger than the yearlings.
The dark green flatbed truck makes its way up the gravel road to the wire gate that encloses fifty acres of frozen turf that was bared long ago. To the north, the pasture turns to willows and old cattails and lake and sky. To the south, a semitruck loaded with snow-covered logs speeds west on the highway, bound for the mill in Pablo.
The taller of the two men opens the passenger's-side door, gets out of the truck, and unlatches the wire gate, shooing horses from the opening as the other man drives through, then he climbs back into the truck. The truck bounces across frozen piles of manure, connecting the dots like constellations, then stops in the middle of the pasture. The men get out and each grabs a wire-handled five-gallon plastic bucket filled with oats. They walk in opposite directions, pouring little piles of grain on the ground. There are bales of alfalfa to feed them as well, once the oats are gone.
The taller man empties the last of his bucket. The horses crowd in. One of the older geldings bites a younger gray horse on the shoulder, to force him out of the way. The gray horse spins and pushes into the man, who swings his empty bucket at the horse, shouting, "Get off!" A hoof shoots out from the bunched horses and catches the tall man in the chest. He cries out and clutches his ribs and goes down, the bucket echoing as it bounces once on the hard ground. The other man drops his full bucket of oats and runs to help his brother up and into the truck. He drives to the wire gate, lays it down, drives across, then closes it. There is an urgency to his movements. The truck speeds down the gravel lane, turns west, and follows the highway toward town.
The dark brown colt stands over the spilled oats from the dropped bucket. His rear is to the other horses, and he eats greedily. Finally, the other horses gather around and the ground is licked clean in a matter of seconds.
Another January, and Carter and I have the run of the place, twenty-five hundred acres of land framed by the reach of the slate-colored Mission Mountains, their peaks buried in snow, the full blue span of the heavens above, the ground solid beneath our feet.
Phil, my boss, is spending two weeks in Mexico to escape the gray crush of winter in northwest Montana. But today the clouds have disappeared and the sun is everywhere. Carter walks beside me with the energy of a small boy eager to help his father. He is fascinated with everything. The old barn, red and peeling in the sunlight. The overgrown apple orchard. The bales of hay stacked like toy blocks. Cows, sheep, chickens, mice. The horses. Like the current running though a single-wire electric fence, there is a hum to the place. It is life and it is death, but mainly it is life.
Jennifer is at a doctor's appointment. We've been trying to have another child for more than a year and now, she thinks she's pregnant. I wish I could be there, listening, asking questions, holding her hand, but I promised Phil I'd check the cows today. I also wish I could have spent time at home with Carter, reading picture books and drinking chocolate milk and eating cheddar-flavored goldfish crackers, since his days as an only child might be over soon. But instead we're here, and I feel that, despite my best efforts, I'm letting everyone down: Jennifer, Carter, my boss. I feel stretched too thin, and that is usually when bad things seem to happen.
The cows are grazing in a distant pasture, and the only way to get there is on the back of a horse. I grab a halter and a lead rope from the barn and head out to the small pasture in front of the house, Carter at my side. As we approach the hay feeders, the four ranch horses lift their heads and stare at us. The two younger ones, Dipper and Draco, begin moving toward the corral with an air of reluctant acceptance. I watch them, trying to decide which one to saddle. These are good solid horses, better than most, but still, I'm uneasy. There is no one around to hear us or to help us if something goes wrong. Between the front gate of the ranch and the front door of the small hospital in town, there are two miles of rutted gravel road and ten miles of pavement that take twenty minutes to cross, if you drive fast. But the greater distance would be the hundreds of acres of grass that we would need to cover on foot if something happened. The decision to ride one horse instead of the other could mean everything.
Carter wears his new helmet, a dome of plastic-covered Styrofoam decorated with black cows, white sheep, and pink pigs on a background of yellow and red. It looks fitted for this ranch work. His black fireman's helmet with the clear visor, the yellow hard hat with purple crayon marks, the ones for baseball and football, all of Carter's other helmets are just for play. This beautiful blond boy, in his first real helmet, breaks my heart. If something were to happen out here on the ranch, if Draco lost his footing on one of the steep hills or Dipper bolted at a flush of birds, the helmet wouldn't be enough to protect him. Carter stares down at an ancient cow pie lying at his feet, like a flattened brown hat in the grass, amazed at the amount of shit in the world.
Except for the star on Dipper's forehead, the horses look identical. Both are dark bays, quarter horses, equal in size and age. But there are slight differences between them. Dipper is more sure-footed. He pays attention when he is walking and doesn't stumble as often as Draco. But Draco is calmer, unlike Dipper, who takes off at the sight of Hungarian partridges lifting from the grass, as if he wants to join them in the sky. Since Carter will be riding in my lap, I decide to saddle Draco, the slow, even-tempered stumblebum.
As they walk toward the corral, Dipper and Draco are joined by Lad, a big, old, recently retired black horse. Like an old man who can't seem to hand over the family business to his son, Laddy still wants to work. He tags along and tries to be useful, but only ends up getting in the way. Spirit, the fourth horse, stands at the hay feeder, deflated and thin with age. His brown coat is rough and his black mane is in tangles. I love being able to share this with Carter, the horses and the cattle, green tractors and red barns, this life.
The air is remarkably still as the horses plod along ahead of us, a slow-moving progression of creaking joints and flatulence and sighs. Dipper is almost to the gate now, Draco and Lad following behind. It is a beautiful, common moment, one I hope will live on in my memory, and in Carter's memories of his childhood. Just as Dipper reaches the gate, he drops his head suddenly. He snorts, pivots, and runs back toward us, followed closely by Draco and Lad. I pull Carter to my side as the horses thunder past in an explosion of hooves and flying dirt. Carter and I stand motionless, his tiny hand in mine.
I think, perhaps for the first time, that I should have my own horse. If I walked out into a pasture with a halter, it would nicker and trot toward me. I wouldn't have to decide which horse to saddle, which animal to trust. If I had a good horse, I could give it my life. I could ride it for years. We could grow old together. Then I would give it to Carter. His own horse, to ride, to have, because I know I will not always be there for him.
I try to run the horses back to the corral, and Carter struggles to keep up. By now the sheep and the llama and a lump-jawed Hereford that share this small pasture are in the mix, darting here and there. I bite the inside of my mouth, trying to remain calm, trying not use the "Daddy words" Carter is fond of repeating.
"Just stand against the fence and watch," I say, but as I step away, the brown llama comes up behind Carter and scares him with its monkey face, its buck teeth, and black eyes.
"Camel!" Carter yells, holding back his sobs, trying not to show his fear.
I avert my gaze and wave my arms at the shaggy beast, because I once heard a llama will spit at you if you look it directly in the eye. It runs off and joins the sheep in the far corner of the pasture. I squat down and hug Carter.
"Let's stick together," I say. "I have another plan."
I lift Carter onto my shoulders. He gives a happy yell as I jog around the pasture, slipping in a fresh cow pie and nearly buckling to the ground. He grips me tighter, holding my chin with both hands, but then he lets go, just one hand clamped on my left ear. I see our shadow playing out on the yellow winter grass. Carter's free hand is in the air, rodeo style, waving at the heavens. He kicks me in the shoulders, spurring me, as I trot across the small pasture behind the three horses. The heels of his tiny snow boots dig into my sides, punching me, but I cannot bring myself to ask him to stop. Together, we move the animals into the corral and close the big green metal gate behind them.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Groneberg
Excerpted from One Good Horse by Tom Groneberg Copyright © 2006 by Tom Groneberg. Excerpted by permission.
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