Blue morning shadows crook in diagonal lines where the corner of the room is lit through Venetian blinds swaying above John, who sweats, clenches his pillow and slows his breath.He feels the discomfort of leaving a steam-filled bathroom as his damp skin snaps at him. An enemy from within. The draft from the open window above his head makes the Venetian shadows dance just so. He lessens his grip and the pillow relaxes beneath his chest. The wife of ten years beside him exhales a sweet, undisturbed breath. He moves to lift an arm, touch her face, but his hand is gone. Pins and needles. He waits a moment and balls his fist, feels his calloused palms crease, stares at the harmless swinging shadows. When the feeling returns, he doesnt touch her.
He turns off the alarm at his bedside that wont go off for another hour and eases from bed, folding the blanket back over his pillow. His steps creak slightly along aging wood planks in his simple halls in his simple home decorated with a few pictures and chaotic crayon artwork by his only daughter. He finds a drink from the liquor cabinet, then takes his time, filling a small glass in the dark. Looking out the kitchen window sipping whiskey. Watching peach clouds along the dark blue backdrop as the day begins. He walks by his daughters room to negate his dream, if only for today, and watches for a moment as she sleeps. Next year she will be old enough to start handling the horses, he thinks to himself, but for now shell have to keep on the hens. He shuts off her alarm and leaves to dress down in Carharts, then starts his day at the henhouse.
After having fed the hens and collecting the eggs as his daughter normally would have done, he sets them on the porch in a wire basket. He turns and zips down his jacket to welcome the suns increasing warmth as it crests over the hillside there just beyond the stables. He steps down and walks past the garage where family tack made with pride now hang aging along the stable wall, which reads Bayrow Tack and Saddle, in white paint curling up from the wood.
When his foot crunches something more than rock and twig, he stops. The translucent skin lies crumpled and kinked beneath his foot, and John steps back slowly, looking around on the ground for any other sign of it. He picks the thing up and spreads it apart in front of himself. About five feet. Hes grown some since the last skin, John thinks.
Son of a bitch, he whispers to himself.
John walks with whats left of the snake between his fingers, more cautious of his steps until he reaches the stable entrance, and sets the skin aside in a bucket. The light from the open stable door wakes a few of the horses. Merlot startles and John coos to her once the skin is out of sight.
Hush, now. Nothin to be ascared of. He walks into its pen with a cube of sugar and puts it to her warm muzzle. You hush, now.
John pats his hand along the horses flank, sending dust dancing in the splinted morning light. His hand traces down her leg and he kisses the air when his fingertips reach just above the hoof. Merlot doesnt move when he pulls at the leg so he kisses air again. The horse gives in.
He runs his finger along the metal shoe, clearing out mud, manure, rocks. He follows the same routine for the other hooves and wipes his hand on a pant leg when finished. He spits. Merlot lifts her head, flicks its tail.
Yeah, yeah, says John, and pats the horse again on the way out.
He latches the stall and inspects the rest of the horses in the same way. Sirrah. Bark. Woodrow. Seashell. Little John. Montana. When finished, he lifts a bit from a peg and tugs at a few straps of leather. Theclinking together of metal parts rouse Seashell in her pen.
Aint your turn, Seashell.
He walks past her to Montana and leads him out after securing the bit beneath his tongue. Montana snorts, then rolls the metal in his mouth. Seashell flicks her tail. John takes a brush from a small box near Montanas stall and starts roving the horses back, a constant gray carpet like a cloudy day in all directions. He claws at Montanas jaw with his short fingernails, scratches, while worrying to himself. His thoughts of bank loans and food stores are interrupted by his daughter calling at him from the stable door.
Im sorry I didnt feed the chickens, she says without lifting her eyes from the ground at her feet. My alarm didnt go off and I, I just got up and, she stopped to rub her eye.
He guessed at the timea few hours must have passedand watched as her hair fell around the hand at her face. It glowed some in the sunlight and cast a long shadow on the ground beside her.
I took care of it, Ashley. I thought you might could feed the horses instead. She looked up at him. Start with Merlot, there. You know where the hays at.
He returns her smile and begins to saddle Montana. He would turn now and then, watching her tug at a bail of hay beside the door. The bail, almost as big as she is, leaves a little trail of straw pieces. He listens to her move, grab, stop. Grab, move. She guides the straw slug and eventually stops in front of the first stall, then uses a pair of tongs to chop through the twine. Her small fingers seep into the straw. She scoops, grabs, tugs handfuls loose. She smiles when Merlot nips at the hay sprawling from her hands. John tightens Montanas saddle and grabs him by the bit, leading him outside. The horses disinterested clop breaks the silence.
When you finish up, sweep all this you left behind and run in get yourself fed.
Thanks, daddy, she said, smiling, and pet the flank as it began to twitch.
John leading the horse outside winces at the morning sky, wondering what ever happened to the peach clouds. He drops his head to shade his eyes with his hat. The horse knows the way to the corral a small, sandy spot, not much bigger than the stable, enclosed by metal grates. John lops the rein over an upper rung. Montana nods and tries to pull back. John opens the grate and leads the horse inside, slips on an old pair of leather gloves and mounts up.
Not much a place for us to go, is it?
He looks ahead, kicks once, and begins turning circles for hours, testing responses and refining movements until the sun starts to bake his skin. After a time his wife walks to the pen, her coming announced by the clap of the screen door. But he keeps riding until he comes to a spot on the grate where shes standing with her sandals on a rung. He looks at her toes peeking out from under the yellow dress held against her body by the grate. She holds a glass of ice water in an outstretched arm and squints at him.
You cant keep missing breakfast. Its not healthy. He takes the glass, sips some, and hands the glass back to her. I saved you some bacon. Come on in for a few minutes. It wont do that old dust cloud a bit of harm to brave it alone in there for a while.
He nods and pats the horse below the ear. Then he watches as she walks away. The gentle, catlike sway of her hips wakes something in him and he steps down, adjusts himself.
The screen door squeaks and claps behind him as he takes up a chair in the kitchen to remove his shoes. He curls his toes. Flexes them out. He watches his wife wiping down the counter top. A lock of auburn hair falls loose and she leaves it to hang. He notices a sparkle of sweat on her cheekbone and stands, picks up a piece of bacon from a plate on the table, eats it, and walks to her. He puts a hand on the small of her back and strokes down. The cloth catches on his hands. He moves lower and squeezes, letting loose a muffled crunch of bacon from his jaw. But his advance is met with the loud crack of a washcloth as she lifts it from the counterjust long enough to snap his handand returns to scrubbing as he yanks his hand away. He rubs it, only partially shocked, then adjusts himself again.
You wash up, first. You know better.
He starts the tap nearby and she looks at him. He looks at her. They smile at each other. As he dries his hands, she pulls him close and guides his hands behind her. She hums, he squeezes, and she looks up at him for a kiss.
I didnt hear you get up this morning, she says against his shoulder.
He smells her hair. Lilacs.
I was up before my alarm.
He kisses her hair. Smells it again.
You smell good.
You didnt answer my question.
The door squeaks as Ashley enters and his wife backs against the counter, moves his hands back despite his efforts to grip and hold firm. She crosses her arms in front of her, so he settles with an arm around her shoulder.
Theres someone outside to see you, daddy.
I didnt hear nobody pull up, he says, setting aside window blinds to see.
Well, hes there.
He recognizes the boy watching Montana, his horse. But hes only watching. After putting his shoes back on, John walks to the boy and calculates with each step, wondering how much more unpaid board he could withstand without putting a lien on Montanas head, or putting the horse on consignment.
Dustin, he says.
Well, John Bayrow.
Thats the name.
I gotta say, youre takin purdy damn good care of this here horse of mine.
The boy reaches from the grate to pat Montanas jaw.
Ought be taken care of, says John. He steps near, both hands in his pockets.
What say I take her for a little ride, then?
John looks at him, then the horse.
Couldnt hurt, I suppose. Dustin starts to climb the grate, but stops short from Johns hand on his shoulder, holding him down.
But then theres board that ought be taken care of, too.
Oh. About that, well, you see, its like this, he says, then takes a deep breath.
John waves a hand at him, his head shaking at the ground.
I wont hear it, Dustin. Your stories dont keep the horse fed. He puts a hand on the grate and looks up at the boy. Dont keep my family fed.
Shit, John. You think I dont know that? I just need a little time extra. Thats all.
John looks at his house and notices the paint cracking just under the eaves there and remembers the storm drains need fixing.
Youve had three months, Dustin.
I know, I know. But I caint much pay you if I caint get work.
The screen door squeaks and they turn to see Johns wife on the porch. She shields her eyes from the sun with a flat hand at her brow and yells if company would like something to drink. Dustin yells back sure at the same time John yells no.
John feels both their eyes on him and looks down, waiting to look up again until after he hears the door clap shut a short distance away.
I think you should get going.
I just got here.
Pay your board and you can ride all you want. But I got to draw the line somewhere.
The boy looks at him, then to Montana.
Well, I think I should get going.
Hours pass after Dustin leaves, and John eventually returns Montana to the stable. He removes the saddle, combs him down and offers a sugar cube. His thoughts linger on the hope of a payment, soon, as he walks away. Seashell watches him pass. She stomps her foot at him and he hears a rustle toward the back of the stable. The horses soon erupt in whinnies and John sees fear in their eyes that he at first doesnt understand, looking at this row of stomping, uncontrollable beasts, until Montana bleats, stomps his foot. He begins to sway. John grabs a shovel and runs the few steps to Montanas stall, finding a snake dead among the grass, severed by a hoof just below its head. Johns jaw goes slack and he sets the shovel down. What wasnt left on the ground between them remained latched into Montanas hind leg like a leech, its poison spent and already working its way into the horses system.
John cursed and yelled across the yard to his wife to call the vet right away. Within the hour, the veterinarian showed up with horse tranquilizers and pills and gauze and trade tools all tucked in a small leather handbag.
As the man begins, John watches nearby and Ashley stands behind him stealing glimpses of the process.
Will he live? Ashley asks.
The doctor looks at her, then up at John. He should be fine, as long as you put him up for a few days until his body has time to work with the anti-venom.
John watches until the doctor wraps the leg in a tourniquet and snips the knot down tight before strapping the wound down with gauze. When finished, the vet stands and wipes his forehead with an arm. He looks around the stall where his eyes stop to inspect the ribbons and pictures. He lifts one from its peg on the wall as the horse begins to wake behind him and looks, almost staring.
Too bad this had to happen to such a fine horse, the man says.
John looks at the man, watching until he sets the picture back on its peg.
Thanks for coming out, John says. Ill be sure to keep him up.
Right. Ill send you a bill.
John nods slowly and walks the man out.
Later that night after dinner, John tries to read the newspaper, but cant make sense of any of it. He folds it and sets it on the kitchen table, then walks upstairs to change for bed. He shaves. As hes rinsing foam from his mug, his wife walks in dressed in her nightgown and wraps her arms around his neck from behind, standing on her toes to reach. She kisses his cheek and smiles. He returns a slight smile, barely more than a crook of his mouth. She asks whats the matter, gripping his shoulder as he reaches for a toothbrush. She holds him with a firm hand that knows work and he covers her hand with his.
Hmm? she asks. Come on, spill it.
John shakes his head and sets paste to his brush.
That horse. The boy. Its just too much trouble.
He sighs. Nevermind.
No, dont do this. Tell me whats going on.
He looks at her through the mirror, then down to the spigot.
He told me today that he cant pay his board again. She looks at him in the mirror and he looks back. Were strapped and this kid just doesnt get it.
Oh, John. Hes just a boy, she says, leaving his side to sit on the bed.
Thats no excuse, he says, pulling the toothbrush from his mouth to spit. The boy has a responsibility, he needs to be held to it.
But you cant expect him to just come up with money from nowhere. You know what happened to his family as well as I do.
And you know his parents kept up on that horse better than he did. But just because they left him with nothing after the accident dont mean I should get stuck with the bill.
Maybe you could. Just for a while.
Havent I been? For three months?
Sitting against the headboard, she crosses her arms in front of her and flexes her toes.
Why are you so worried about it? Its just one horse.
But its not, he says, turning out the bathroom light and moving to his side of the bed. The Thompsons are taking theirs out in a few weeks as soon as their house is finished. They wont need me anymore. Theyve got acreage. We dont.
Even if you lose Sirrah and Merlot, well still be okay.
He looks at her.
Well, weve still got the hens, and I can take up some work at the general in town, she says, slipping herself under the covers.
Thats not right. Besides, how you plan on getting there?
Ive got legs.
John shakes his head and turns out the light at his bedside.
He sets his alarm for .
And why not? she asks quietly, Ive got just as much stake in this family as you do.
You and your pride, I swear, she whispers. Ill just go into town tomorrow and talk to
Goddamn it, woman, what part of no dont you understand? His outburst breaks through their quiet together like rock through glass, dropping the room into silence.
A moment passes long enough for John to cool down. He reaches a hand to her to apologize. She turns away from him in the dark. He is suddenly ashamed, but does nothing to comfort her. After a few moments, John feels the bed shake somewhat from her ribs, heaving, contracting, unable to hide her quiet tears.
John finds himself cutting at the ground through a web of horsehair like sinewy spider strands, crawling and getting tangled as he dives for something. A voice. Ashleys voice. Shes in danger. He cuts faster. She screams louder. He yells back. He cuts more. He cant see. His arm keeps cutting. He can see her. She hangs in a cocoon. He cuts away more. He pulls closer. A final cut and her screams fade. He looks at her falling, falling, falling. Closer to nothing.
John wakes with a start and stops his clock from sounding off once again. He rubs his eye and stands from bed to get a drink. After throwing back a shot, he stops, paralyzed with the glass to his lips, listening to a sound coming from outside. Its a slight squeak of which he normally ignores along his morning routine. He sets the glass down slowly and hears the noise again, then moves to a kitchen window with a clear view of the stables. Just as he feared, the gate to the stable stands swinging, unlocked, violated. He rushes outside, letting the screen door clap behind him in his dash to the stable.
Once inside, John inspects each stall, but notices one head is gone. Montanas gate was unhinged, all the saddles sit still in their places, all the gear left alone. Without a thought, he returns to the house to dress quickly and grabs his fathers Civil War pistol from a living room display, along with the lead and powder hed need to load it.
His steps begin on a hunch and follow the unpaved road away from home.
John eventually picks up the tracks of the horse and its thief, both of them having left imprints in the dusted roadway. He can tell the thief isnt heavyset, but has a slow, deliberate stride. He bends over a set of footprints, noticing the heel having dug in, swiveled, to force his catch in a new direction. John recreates the scene, then brushes over the track with his toe and looks ahead. The trail moves downward off the dirt road into a swale, where three of the horses hoof prints have seeped in and left a deep marking along the way. Montana must be limping. His own feet sink with each step and release with a pucker of mud.
His hunch is taking shape and he begins to wonder if bringing the gun was the right idea.
The nuances of his posse training start trickling in, helping here and there as he picks up a path of slight fingerprints on untouched wilderness. When the sheriff couldnt pay board for Seashell a few years back, he offered John free training for a month instead. Itll pay off some day, he said. John took the offer with reluctance.
Sure its paying off, he says to himself. Im hunting down a horse I cant afford to keep and an owner who cant afford the damned horse.
The trail fades away a few yards off through a thicket of sage and wheatgrass. His pants catch along the bushes until he comes across a small hem of gauze hung up on a thorn bush. He kneels to pluck it away and notices a purple gleam on a few of the thorns. He strokes one and the color rubs off on his finger. He tastes it and swears to himself. The sound of a brook seeps through the tree line and blue shadows are starting to creep through a set of hillsides to the East.
He walks on, listening for the brook to get louder, realizing his thirst and wondering if his wife will again scold him for missing breakfast.
An echo comes over the brook, now much closer by the sound of it. He stops to listen, trying desperately to tone out the sound of water, some birds, a slight breeze through the meadow grass and Aspen leaves that would fall in weeks to come.
He hears it again, a shout.
His pace quickens to follow the sound before it gets away from him. Hell lose them both in the brook, sure. His steps double, then near a trot and the holster taps at his side. He pulls out the pistol and slows a little to look down the empty chamber.
He reaches for a pouch at his side with his free hand, pulling out a small paper envelope the size of his pinky. Holding it to his mouth and biting off the tip, he releases the metallic scent of black powder amid the sap and earth and fading darkness around him. He stops in his stride and holds the pistol in front of him, carefully pouring each grain down the first of four chambers. He drops the paper casing and starts walking again with the pistol pointed skyward. His fingers find a patch and a lead ball from a different pouch and he sets it on top of the chamber before cramming it down. The voice comes again and he grips the weapon as he lunges into a full sprint.
The trees stop just ahead before a pebble beach mugging the water. He slows, fingering the pistol, and eventually holds it in front of him as he breaks from the tree line. He hears a whinny and marks his steps. With each step closer, the muffled voice grows louder, a pleading tone. John stalls, wondering if someone else already caught up with the thief and had him at his mercy. His pistol still at the lead, he turns around an embankment and sees Montana, lying on his side, and a clear shot at his thief.
The boy. Sitting with his back against the horses belly, his head resting on crossed arms at his knees. Montana heaves, wheezing, its belly lifting and falling for strenuous breaths, and Dustin lifting and falling with it. The boy jumps to his feet when he sees John, backing away at the sight of the gun. John exhales and shakes his head.
You leave me alone. He stretches out a hand, pointing a finger and backing away. Early sunlight splits his face where his cheeks are stained from tears and dust.
Hush, now, John coos, lowering the pistol. I aint gonna hurt you, boy.
He watches as Dustin begins to relax, then sits back down by the horse.
What the hell dyou do this for?
The boy puts a hand in Montanas mane, sifting through it with his fingers.
John steps closer and around him to see the horses leg. He waves away flies prancing around the reopened wound, the pistol now limp in his hand. The leg took on a blackish spider web of veins beneath the skin and John presses a hand to it. Montana recoils and lifts his head, then relaxes as John backs away.
You realize this horsell have to be put down.
The boy brings his hand to his ear as if struck by Johns words.
Itll only get worse.
Montana snorts. Dustin squints at John and the glow of a purple sun behind him.
And what the hell am I supposed to do? says Dustin. This horses the only thing I got.
John pauses before looking at the boy. That aint my concern.
John moves closer to Montana and his shadow casts over the horses head, neck, mane. He lifts the pistol. Montanas eye looks into him, asking, pleading, yet understanding what it sees. The length of a barrel. A trainer turned assassin. John pulls back the hammer, starting the chamber on its predestined route to a slow, spring-loaded click.
You might want to get out of the way, son.
John lets out a chuckle and lowers the gun.
Those are strong words to a man with a gun in his hand.
He kneels down to stroke Montanas jaw and looks at Dustin. John scratches the horse and its tail flicks at the opposite end.
Youd of used it by now if you meant to.
The boy was right. John didnt come to shoot a horse. At most, hed come to shoot a thief. But this wasnt a thief. Just some stupid kid without a place to turn. He releases the hammer and hands the pistol to the boy. The boy looks at it, then away.
Aint my horse, says John, nudging the pistol closer. Go on, take it. You took him this far. Now you finish it off. Ill leave you to it.
The boy looks away. John sets the pistol in his crossed arms.
You know where I live. Give it back when youre done.
The boys jaw clamps, grating muscles as he is unsuccessful at holding back more tears. John turns to walk away and the boy sits with his back against the horses belly with the gun in his lap.
How much left do I owe?
He thinks back on what his wife told him. Maybe another chance wouldnt hurt, and he could start looking for a new horse to board in Montanas place.
You can pay me later, he says, his footsteps crunching along the return path.
Three months board, vet bills. Food. His voice begins to trail off.
The boy shouts behind him, And if I cant pay?
Well, I woulda sold him or put a lien on, but hes worthless now. Wont hardly see nightfall. It dont matter anymore, he says, throwing a hand in the air.
John hears the click of the hammer in place from behind him. His thoughts flood, half wondering how long itll take to fill the empty stable slot, and half wondering if the boy is aiming for his back.
He listens again to the brook, remembering his thirst, and hears a bird in the distance.
When it finally comes, the blast startles him and interrupts thoughts of making up lost breakfast and boarding. Then he hears the slump of death against the pebbled beach.
The bird flaps away with diminishing chirps.
John stops walking.
John turns, knowing what hell find, and remains focused on the horse instead. He sees its wild gaze, searching for reasonwhat reason a horse can graspand attempting to stand, to get away.
Hush, now, John says. Hush.
He walks to Dustin, who lies cradled into the crook of Montanas belly. John says nothing, his eyes fixed on the pistol, and lifts it from the boys lifeless hand.