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Under CottonwoodsA Novel of Friendship, Fly Fishing, and Redemption
By Grace, Stephen
The Lyons PressCopyright © 2005 Grace, Stephen
All right reserved.
"Right up there," Walter said. "There's our bikes."
I saw a glint of metal in the green sage. I slowed down, started drifting toward the gravel at the edge of the road. A big, boxy RV sped by; my truck shook in its wake.
"Look out!" Walter yelled.
Two animal shapes -- one small and black, the other large and white -- leapt from the sagebrush, onto the pavement. I rammed the brake pedal; my truck turned to the side, across the road, as it skidded to a stop. Next to the passenger side stood two horses. The larger one, white as bone, shook its head and whinnied. Its twitching eyes and the dark caves of its flared nostrils were a few feet from the window. Mitch scooted away from the glass; Walter leaned toward it, staring. The small black horse, with head tossing, eyes rolling, and mane frothing behind it, turned and ran off the road, back into the maze of bushes that it had burst from. The big white horse stomped and snorted, standing its ground.
"That's one mean horse," said Walter in a voice that barely lifted above a whisper.
Mitch covered his face with his hands and peered at the horse through fingergaps.
"He don't have a saddle," Walter said. "Maybe he's wild."
The horse lowered its head and stepped toward the truck, then shuffled back and snorted. It seemed to lookthrough the window, right at Walter, who pressed his face to the glass.
"Angry horse," Mitch said. He leaned farther away from the window, still peeking through his hands.
Walter pushed the front seat forward, then reached for the door handle and started to open it. "I want to see that horse up close," he said as he shoved the seat, pushing Mitch onto the floor. Mitch balled himself up, then covered his face with his hands and said in a muffled voice, "Bad idea, Walter. That's not safety first."
Walter flung open the door and began to wiggle out of the back seat.
"He's just a horse," said Walter. "He's not so mean." He pressed the seat all the way forward, squashing Mitch, who moaned and said, "Bad idea. Very angry horse."
Walter swung his feet onto the pavement.
"Get back in the truck," I said. "Right now."
He stood up, holding the edge of the seat to steady himself.
"Walter, get back here!"
Mitch uncovered his face and grabbed Walter's shirt. He tugged with both hands, trying to pull him in. "Be careful, Walter," he squeaked. "Safety first."
The horse lowered its head and snorted. The white bulbs of its eyes darted back and forth. I climbed over Mitch, reached for Walter.
Mitch squealed and said, "You're squishing me."
I grabbed Walter's shirt, then crawled closer and tightened my grip. My knee sank into Mitch's back. "Ouch," he yelled. "I'm squishing!"
I yanked Walter into the truck. Mitch was on the floor, wedged between the dashboard and the seat, clenching the console with his hands. His glasses were beaded with fog.
"You all right?" I asked.
"Can't see so good. But I'm not squishing no more."
Walter stared at the horse through the open door. I reached down to wipe Mitch's glasses with my shirtsleeve; as I let go of Walter he scooted out the truck and shut the door behind him. I crawled over the seat, trying to avoid Mitch, who curled into a ball and said, "Oh no, more squishing."
I opened the door, slid over the seat, and when I dropped onto the road a grasshopper leapt from the pavement at my feet, fanning open its paperthin wings of yellow and black. Walter took a few steps toward the horse; it backed away from the helmeted human that limped toward it.
"What the hell are you doing, Walt?"
"Safety first!" Mitch yelled.
I'd forgotten that my truck was turned sideways, across the road, blocking it. Cars coming from the opposite direction had stopped on the other side of the horse. I couldn't see the drivers through the glare on the windshields; the sun was high and hot in a cloudless sky.
Walter took a step forward. The horse turned to the side and puffed out its flanks, showing Walter the full white bulk of its flesh. Walter took another step. The horse swung around, its meaty sides rippling over its ribcage, lids stretched back over eyes that looked as round and white as cue balls.
"The hell you doin'?" someone yelled from one of the cars. "You some kinda maniac or somethin'?"
"Knock it off, Walt," I yelled. "Get back in the truck!"
Walter took another step, stumbled, steadied himself. The horse whinnied and rose up on its back legs; with its front hooves it pawed the air. It teetered forward and fell back to earth, its hooves sounding off like gunshots as they smacked the pavement. The black hollows of the horse's nostrils were inches from Walter's face. It rolled its eyes drunkenly and peeled back its lips, showing teeth yellow and frothy. Walter straightened his back and stood up tall. His helmet glowed in the fiercebeating sun; his face was a dark smudge below the brightness. Walter pressed his head forward until, from a distance, it seemed his face touched the mouth of the horse and his sunbright helmet merged with the horse's white flesh.
"The hell is he doin'?" drifted from a car.
"Safety first!" Mitch yelled.
I ran toward Walter and the horse, stopped a few yards away from them. Walter had his eyes closed. When I was near enough to reach out and grab him, he opened his eyes, stretching his lids so far back his eyeballs looked like eggs. The horse, with its eyes rolling in their sockets and its yellow teeth still showing, stood perfectly still. With eyes wide open, Walter pulled his lips back, baring teeth that shined as brightly as his sundrenched helmet. Sweatbeads spilled from his forehead, wandered his cheeks, dripped onto his shirt.
As I reached out to grab Walter and yank him away, the horse reared up again, swiveling on its hind legs, kicking the air with its front hooves. Its white bulk passed before the sun, casting a shadow over Walter and me. I stared up at unshod hooves, scraping the sky as if trying to grip an icy slope. The horse turned to the side and crashed down a few feet away. The impact of its landing quaked through the pavement, shot up my legs, climbed my spine. I shuffled toward the truck, dragging Walter with me. He was limp and sweaty and smiling.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?" I asked when we were back in the truck. Walter gazed out the window, said nothing.
Mitch climbed off the floor, into his seat. He wiped his glasses, then turned around, reached into the back of the truck, and patted Walter's knee. "You forgot safety first?"
The horse was off the road, galloping across the plateau, its white body parting the sea of green sage. I backed the truck up, straightened it, then drove past the line of cars, the people inside them staring. As we went by a man with his jaw hanging slack, his mouth agape, I rolled down the window and said, "Don't worry, we do this all the time. We're horse tamers."
"It's okay," Mitch added, waving at the man.
I glanced at Walter in the rearview mirror as I drove. He stared out the window and smiled, watching the horse, a white streak in the green of the sagewrapped plateau.
"Was that some kind of seizure or something?" I asked.
"I knew what I was doing," he said quietly, firmly.
"Were you trying to kill yourself?"
Walter said nothing. He was still staring out the window. He forced open his left hand and pressed his moist palm to the glass.
"Bikes," Mitch yelled. "There!" He pointed behind us. I pulled off the road and backed up to the edge of a clearing, where the bikes were chained to a lone spruce standing straight and tall. Scrawny pine trees twisted by wind surrounded it, as if the tortured pines had gathered around the spruce to seek counsel on avoiding the wind's abuse. I climbed onto the hood of the truck and watched Mitch. He pulled a bundle from his shirt pocket and unwrapped newspaper and tape, revealing another package. And inside that package was another -- like Chinese boxes or Russian nesting dolls. Finally the last package was opened and a silver key fell to the dirt at Mitch's feet. He picked it up, held it to the sky and smiled, then wiped it on his pantleg and unlocked the bikes.
"Remember what we talked about," I said as Walter plopped down on the seat of his fourwheeled rig and Mitch got onto his mountain bike. Next to my face, gnats clustered in a hovering ball, a black cloud writhing with life.
Excerpted from Under Cottonwoods by Grace, Stephen Copyright © 2005 by Grace, Stephen. Excerpted by permission.
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