Night Ride Home
By Barbara Esstman
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Barbara Esstman
All right reserved. ISBN: 006097754X
My brother Simon died with his eyes open, staring blue into the sky. Out of the corner of my eye I had seen him fall, but at first when I turned I thought he was joking, splayed out like a snow angel in the grass. No blood, no marks on his body. I didn't believe he could be hurt, let alone dead. My mother's mare, Zad, the gray Arab he had been riding, turned back, nuzzled his hand, and snorted. Then the morning pulled tight and held so quiet that I could hear the horses breathe and shift and rustle.
"Simon," I said.
My little gelding tossed its head and mouthed the bit.
"Simon," I said again, angry that he would frighten me. It would be just like Simon to pretend for a second that something was wrong, just to get me to laugh in relief a minute later. Then I went sick deep in my belly that this might not be a trick.
"Simon, stop it," I said.
When he wouldn't answer, I dismounted but stayed a few steps away, afraid that he would leap at me or grab my hand. When I finally worked up the nerve, the warmth of his skin made me jerk back. His head rolled sideways as if he had turned to tell me something.
I knew in that instant he was dead. I mounted and kicked the bay hard, riding low over its neck withmy legs banging and its sides lathering. I could not find its rhythm and gripped the edge of the saddle for balance. What I thought about then was not that I might be thrown and killed, as apparently had happened to Simon, but that my fingers pressed between the blanket and ridge of the horse's back were warm in that space between its shoulders.
The day broke into odd pieces: Black mane whipping and green grass blurring. The stripes of the saddle blanket, and the bright, hot air like a solid through which I was only dreaming I made my slow, thick way. And always Simon's blue eyes staring down from the sky and up from the ground and out from inside me.
When I came galloping up from the low fields with Zad trailing behind the way she always followed like a dog, my mother, Nora, stood up from the rosebushes she was pruning, her hand shading her eyes. Then she ran, her head back and fists pumping like a sprinter. She got to the gate before I could unfunible the latch and stood with her hands against the bay's rump and withers as if trapping me in her arms for just long enough to see if I was all right.
"Where's Simon?" she asked. "Did Zad throw him?"
I nodded yes, and she grabbed for Zad's reins. As she mounted, one foot in the stirrup, Zad turned in an excited circle around her.
"Get help." She slapped the mare's haunches to knock it out of its turning and threw her leg over its back.
I watched until she disappeared down the trail at the edge of the pasture. Then I left the gelding in the paddock and ran to the house to call my father, Neal, at work, and the feedstore, where Ozzie Kline, the hired man, had gone. My voice was shaking so I could hardly give the operator the numbers or explain clearly when I got through.
"Stop blubbering, Gea," my father shouted. "Is Simon hurt?"
"Yes," I told him, afraid to say more and make it certain.
Ozzie arrived at the same time as my father with the doctor, driving fast down the lane one behind the other. I'd saddled each a horse. My father hesitated a second before mounting his, but he followed silently as I led the men down the bluff. I rode at a fast trot down the middle of the trail so none of them, especially Ozzie Kline, could come even with me. As we came out past the tree line, I could see my mother as she leaned over Simon, her body shielding his. I could only think of a photograph I'd seen of a Civil War battlefield, with bodies arranged like frozen dancers in beaten-down grass, arms flung out and backs arched against the sky.
The men rode past me, and I reined in the bay. I wouldn't go near Simon, though I watched the doctor pass his hands over the eyes to close them. I turned my horse to face the river, hidden down the slope of its banks at the edge of the pasture, my back to the men, whose voices sounded like the baying and yelping of pack dogs.
But I had already seen, too much and remembered too clearly: Simon and I on our way to the river to see how high the last rains had brought it and how it was leaking over its channel into the lowest spots of the bottoms land. Simon asking questions I didn't want to know the answer to and then staring up at me from the grass.
My father had told my mother that this year the water would reach the house and make us sorry we lived on the floodplain between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. He'd also told her not to let Simon ride Zad, that she was too spirited. But my mother didn't listen any more than Simon to what she didn't want to hear.
My father was right about Simon riding Zad, but for the wrong reasons. It was not Zad's fault. She had stumbled over the rock and slid on the wet ground. I'd heard her hoof strike with a hollow ring and turned just in time to see her knees bend as if she was dropping to prayer. It wasn't her fault, but Simon's for riding with the reins loose and one knee up on the saddle, even after I'd warned him that the trail was slippery.
Excerpted from Night Ride Home by Barbara Esstman Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Esstman. Excerpted by permission.
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