Authors: Joseph Monninger
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“I’ve never ridden a finer horse.”
“Faster, anyway. Speed’s still the finest horse.”
“You’re a beautiful rider, Delores,” I said.
“We are Sioux,” I said.
“We are Sioux,” she answered.
Then we did something we hadn’t done in a long while. We lay backward along the horses’ spines, our heels up on either side of the horses’ necks. It’s a tricky thing to do, a move that can easily backfire, but we’d done it a lot the previous summer for a string of days. We’d taken Speed to the Chalk Stream every day, and one of the other horses, too, and we’d lounged on the horses’ backs, watching the blue summer sky pass, the shade running like dark cats across our skin. That’s what we did for a while in the field outside of Austin, Minnesota. We didn’t speak for a long time. It was enough to have horses under us, their hay smell and sweat mixing in the September winds, and the sound, now and then, of water running over stones.
“Stars are coming out,” Delores said when we had cooled and the horses had started to nose the grass.
“I love horses,” I said.
“I know you do, Hattie.”
“You know I love Speed, don’t you?”
“Sure,” she said.
“I want him to have some sort of great day,” I said. “That sounds stupid, I know.”
“No, it doesn’t,” she said, then changed the subject a little. “Are the stars spinning above you?”
“Yes. Like a big tube and the horse is at the bottom.”
“I don’t care what happens. They can arrest me, and I’m still glad we came. I am. I bet Speed feels that way, too.”
“I feel a little lost, though,” I said.
“Whoa!” Delores said. “I almost fell. We’re all lost, Hattie, one way or another. This old guy I met once said the trick of life is to stop thinking it’s about sitting on a train until the next stop.”
“What is it, then?”
“Who knows? But if you keep expecting the next station to appear and all lights to be on, you’re probably going to be disappointed. I think that was his point. You might ride for days on the train and not see anything. And other times you’d make three stops in an hour. He said the trick is to learn to ride the train.”
“He sounds like a dope,” I said, and started to laugh.
Delores laughed, too.
“I’m cold,” she said. “Let’s go.”
We walked the horses back up the hill and slid off them when we came close to the herd. We spent a few minutes with Speed. He looked old and tired beside the younger horses, but he didn’t want for anything. He had plenty of grass and some good company. It occurred to me, and maybe to Delores, too, that we could drive away and leave him right where he stood. It was possible no one would notice him for a week or more, and when they did, he would be their horse. He could stay with the small herd, or maybe someone would bring him into a warm barn for the winter. But maybe what we wanted for him was something without fences.
We didn’t talk about it. We went back to the truck and climbed in and ran the engine for a few minutes to take the chill off. Then we fluffed out the sleeping bags and lay down feet to head on the bench seat. I told Delores her feet smelled like coffee cans, and she pushed them into my face a little, but it wasn’t that kind of mood. Frost came in and covered the windshield, and before she fell asleep, Delores made sure we had the pepper spray ready. I put it on the dashboard near me. We didn’t tell any scary stories that night, and we didn’t talk for more than a minute. Cold wrapped around the truck, and sometime during the night I heard sleet tick off the cab roof and the hiss of wind throwing it against the trees.
E WOKE TO WHITE FIELDS
“I’m freezing,” Delores said first thing when she felt me moving.
I couldn’t see her. She had the sleeping bag over her head.
“Start the engine a little,” I said. “I’m going to check on Speed. It snowed.”
“Did not,” she said, sitting up and looking around. She looked sleepy and confused.
“Holy moley,” she said, sliding back under the sleeping bags. “Let’s keep sleeping.”
“Get the truck running. I’m starving for real.”
She didn’t budge. I punched her hip a little with my hand,
but she didn’t move. So I made an annoying squeaking sound I knew she hated, until she finally shoved up and jumbled the sleeping bags toward me.
“You are such a brat,” she said.
“I’m cold and I’m hungry,” I said. “Now get moving.”
I pushed out of the truck and nearly fell. Ice coated the road. I heard the truck clatter a little, then turn on. The horses looked up, their ears twitching to check us out. I opened the gate and stepped through.
I saw him right away.
A stone rolled through my guts, and I opened my mouth to try for air.
“No, no, no,” I said, and I ran.
The closest horses to the gate spread at my approach, spooked by my sliding, spastic run. I fell once onto a knee and shot back up. I yelled for Delores but doubted she heard me. I yelled again anyway, because Speed lay on the ground, his body a black line in a white field, the snow and sleet covering him.
“No, no,” I said, and slid down on my knees next to his head.
I knew better than to put my arms around his neck so suddenly, and he jerked up, frightened, his cheek slamming into my nose. A bright light cracked in my skull, and Speed
waved his hooves against the ground. I fell backward, stupefied, and the pain of his thick head hitting me climbed down into my neck, then my shoulders, and would have kept going if a bright red stream of blood hadn’t suddenly spouted onto my coat.
“Easy,” I said, but whether I was talking to him or myself, I couldn’t say.
I sawed the back of my hand across my face, and it came away bloody. I arched my head out like a chicken pecking, trying to keep the blood off my coat, at the same time trying to see what had happened to Speed. He looked horrible, glazed with ice and suffering. Steam came off his body. I reached out my hand and put it on his head. Ice shucked under my fingers when I ran my hand down his neck. He had moved just enough at my hug to show me a snow horse, a shadow of his shape blocking out the snow.
I ran back to the truck.
“Delores!” I yelled, and she finally came out, stepping out of the driver’s side and looking over the roof at me. I watched her take in the blood, her face puzzled. Then she leaned a little to her left and saw past me to Speed.
“Are you kidding me?” she said, her voice rising.
“He’s down,” I said.
“Did he get you with a hoof?”
“No, he lifted his head into mine. He’s alive.”
“Let me get something. Hold on.”
She brought out a paper bag and hurried around the truck. She crumpled it and handed it to me.
“Just hold this against your nose for a second,” she said. “I don’t have anything else right now. You’re bleeding like a stuck pig.”
“Fill a plastic bag with snow,” I said, my voice high and tight and nasal.
She nodded. She zipped back around the truck and dug inside until she came up with an olive plastic grocery bag. She held it open and brushed snow and sleet off the hood and roof. I stood still and pressed the paper bag against my nose, trying not to notice if the blood came faster or slower. I glanced down once and saw bloodstains all over the front of my jacket and down on my jeans.
“Here you go,” she said, coming around.
I started to reach for the bag, but then a wing beat of nausea hit me and I held up a finger to her. I stepped a couple paces away and vomited. It killed my nose to vomit. Delores came over and held my hair back. I vomited twice before I could straighten up. My ribs scraped against something that must have been skin or muscle.
“Are you okay?” Delores said, giving me the bag.
I nodded. The ice didn’t feel like anything on my nose.
“We’ve got to get your head tilted back,” she said. “You’re still gushing.”
“It’ll be all right,” I said, tasting ropes of blood spooling down my throat.
“Maybe, maybe not,” she said, trying to see past my hand and the bag of ice. “We may have to have you looked at.”
“It’s just a bloody nose,” I said. “What about Speed?”
“Let me take a look,” she said. “You get in the truck and warm up.”
“I’m coming with you,” I said.
She didn’t try to argue. I held the bag against my nose and walked with her over to the gate. The horses didn’t scatter this time. They milled away, curious and interested, their profiles to us sometimes as if ready to run. Delores made a little “shoo, shoo, shoo” sound that kept them pushing away. Ice still tried to trip me up, and once I had to stop and let my feet slide me a little downhill. The pin oak near the gate looked glassy and cold.
“Okay,” Delores said to Speed from a distance, talking to him the way I should have done. She wanted him to know we were approaching. “Okay, Speedy boy.”
“He looks bad,” I said.
“Just hold on,” she said. “Let’s stay calm.”
She knelt down softly next to him. I followed her. He turned his head a bit to look at us, his brown eye rolling to focus. He appeared nervous and scared.
“Do you think he got cold or something?” I asked. “You think that’s it?”
She shrugged. She kept petting him. Ice followed the blade of her hand.
“It could be anything,” she said after a little while. “He could have slipped, or his gut got twisted. Who knows? He’s old, Hattie.”
“He can’t do this,” I said. “Not this.”
My eyes filled. It felt like a big train, one you figured would arrive any second but seemed to delay and delay and delay, suddenly snapped across a trestle above your head and sucked all the wind from everywhere so that no one could breathe. I looked at Speed, then had to turn away.
“Is your nose slowing down?” Delores asked, not looking at me.
I pulled the plastic bag away. I put the back of my fingers under my nostrils. Only a little blood leaked out on them.
“I’m fine,” I said, daubing the fingers on my jeans.
“We could try to get him onto his feet. Maybe with both of us he might be talked into it.”
“It’s worth a try.”
Delores grabbed his halter and I walked around his head, near where his hooves were, and grabbed the other side.
“Ready?” she said.
I nodded and put down the bag of ice. A second later she raised her voice and said, “Come on, Speed. Up you go. Come on. Get up,” and I did the same from my side. We both tugged at the halter straps but he wasn’t having any. His head thumped down after he raised it a little. He nickered and something sounded deep and raspy in his chest.
I got up and walked away. I put my hands on my knees and I felt like vomiting again. Only now it wasn’t my nose that turned my stomach, but Speed’s flaccid body. I took deep, even breaths, trying to sort things out.
“We need a vet,” I said straight out, not turning to make sure Delores heard.
She didn’t say anything.
“They must have one around here,” I said, then turned back to see her.
“The thing is, Hattie,” Delores said slowly. “We probably need a gun.”
E SAT IN THE TRUCK, OUR FEET UP TO THE HEAT COMING
in from below. We had the blower on at its highest level. I liked the sound of it. It blocked out everything for a second or two so I didn’t have to think. My nose felt flat and spread-out against my face. I still tasted blood now and then, and dry kernels flaked away sometimes from somewhere inside my head, and it felt like paint coming off a wall. My jacket front had turned rusty and brown. Blood had dotted my jeans with dull pennies of color.
I didn’t look at Speed. I couldn’t.
“The Fergusons were right all along,” I said after a little while.
“You don’t know that yet,” Delores said. “Don’t jump to conclusions.”
“You just said we needed a gun. You know how things stand as well as I do.”
She didn’t say anything to that.
“I’m just trying to think,” Delores said after a bit. “We need to eat soon no matter what. I’m going to chew my fingers if we don’t get something.”
“I can’t eat,” I said.
“We’re eating,” she said. “What day is it?”