Authors: Joseph Monninger
“We thought we’d put him out on a range somewhere,” I said. “Where he can be a horse.”
“What’s he now if he’s not a horse?” Drew asked, starting to laugh.
“I mean so he can live like a horse should live,” I said. “Be free for a little while.”
“I see,” Punch said, and I believed he did.
“So let me get this straight,” Drew said, setting down his fork and lifting his water. “You stole a horse to bring it out here and let it go? Is that it, more or less?”
“You don’t understand anything,” Delores said.
“But is that what you’re saying?” Drew insisted.
“You can reduce anything,” Delores said, “and if you reduce it enough it sounds silly.”
Drew smiled and shook his head. He picked up his fork again and starting pulling at more noodles.
“I know a place,” Punch said, looking at me, then at Delores. “Not far from here, either.”
“Where?” I asked.
“An old rodeo guy named Fry. He’s got a big hunk of land outside of town here, and he lets some horses range over it. He’s got a deal worked out with a rodeo. The PETA people are always watching how the animals are treated, so when they get too old, at least some of them, they go out to Fry’s. He’d let your horse go free out there.”
I looked at Delores. I felt my heart beating hard.
“Speed’s been wobbly lately. He went down the other day and had trouble getting back up,” I said. “That’s his name, Speed.”
“Well, sorry to say, it might be his time,” Punch said. “I could take a look at him. I grew up around horses.”
I felt my throat close off a little. I wondered, looking at Delores and watching Drew eat, if maybe everyone all the way along had thought Speed was better off dead. The Fergusons had thought so, and so had my mom, and even Delores, in her way, hadn’t jumped in to defend Speed all the way across. Maybe I was being paranoid, I couldn’t tell, but it hit me that perhaps people had humored me and that I had been foolish enough, and blind enough, to imagine they agreed. Maybe
Speed had always been my issue. Delores cared about him, but she wanted to go west, and Speed provided an excuse for the trip. I put down my fork and drank some water. I felt dizzy and light-headed.
“You should bring old Woody over,” Drew said, half to us, half to Punch. “He’s the rodeo vet and a friend of ours. He could tell you in no time how sound your horse might be. There’s not a thing that man doesn’t know about horses.”
“I could do that,” Punch said to me. “He’s a good guy, and he’d help you out.”
I lost my appetite and felt strange and grindy down in my guts. The guys ate awhile longer, but soon Uh came back with a check. Delores paid, which seemed right because the guys had treated us to the rodeo, and they left a tip. We took four fortune cookies from a big bowl near the front of the restaurant. Delores broke hers open right away, and it said
You must watch the birds to know when the seed is sown
. Punch read his, and I didn’t catch it all. Then Drew made us all listen while he said
“ ‘A wise man carries a baby inside him all his life.’ ”
I stuck mine into my pocket without opening it. I wasn’t being secretive or dramatic. I understood that if it said anything possibly related to Speed, I’d cry like a big blubber-puss, and I didn’t want to do that in front of two cowboys.
When we got back to the motel, I told Delores I wanted to check on Speed, and Punch agreed to go with me. I grabbed a headlamp from our room, and Drew and Delores had a little good-night moment. They hadn’t hit it off, exactly, and neither one of them felt like faking it, but they hugged quickly, thanked each other, and called it a night. Delores looked dead at me as I left with Punch. She didn’t have to say anything.
UNCH KISSED ME BEFORE WE MADE IT AROUND BACK
He kissed me long and hard, pushing me against a wall between two doors. He tasted a little like Chinese food, and a little like minty tea, and his body felt as long and as tough as a streetlamp pole. I kissed him back. I had been kissed by boys before a couple times, but never anyone like Punch, never in Minnesota, never by someone I had known only a couple of hours. When he broke away, he grabbed my hand and pulled me free of the wall, and he said he had wanted to kiss me all night, sorry, was it okay, because his mother had brought him up to be a gentleman, and he didn’t mean to press me.
“It was fine,” I said. “I wanted to kiss you, too.”
“Let’s go look at your horse,” he said.
I said a little prayer of thanks when I saw Speed picking
at hay near the line of bushes. Punch took my hand as we walked over, and I handed him the headlamp so he could use it to inspect Speed. Almost instantly I saw that Punch understood horses. He was calm to begin with, but as he put his hand on Speed, his manner became full and easy, like patting down a comforter, and he talked in a low, cadenced voice that took the tension out of my shoulders. Punch shined the headlamp down from above so he could see Speed’s face and eyes. Then he walked under Speed’s muzzle and ran his hand along the horse’s body.
“Big guy,” he said when he was halfway down Speed’s flank.
“Sixteen and a half hands,” I said. “He’s been a fair pony, if you know what I mean. He gave rides.”
“Couple dollars a ride,” Punch said. “I know.”
“How does he look to you?”
Punch shrugged. The circuit between his brain and his lips took its time, I realized. He didn’t blurt things out, which was something I admired in him.
“Of course,” he said eventually, “it’s hard to tell anything in this light. He looks dry and drawn. That might just be the trailer ride. He seems a little edgy, maybe, like he’s not feeling all here. This guy Woody claims a horse can go away in
its mind when it needs to. That’s how your Speed seems to me.”
“You think he’s done?” I asked, trying to sound casual but feeling my throat tighten.
“I don’t know a thing like that, Hattie,” Punch said. “Let me bring Woody over. You know, one way or the other you could put him out on Fry’s land and let him be a free horse for a couple days. Then if he doesn’t seem to thrive, well, you can take care of things. If he does, then you’re all set.”
I looked at him and nodded. It was the best plan, given how things had tumbled. He grabbed my hands and pulled me into him, but instead of hugging me he lifted me up right onto Speed. I had to swing my leg up to get it over, but Speed didn’t seem to mind. Even after he let go of me, I felt Punch’s hands under my arms, the pressure like the rubber ends of crutches up in my armpits.
“There’s a good-looking boy,” Punch said. “That’s a horse.”
“He was pretty in his day,” I said, to my surprise not feeling self-conscious around Punch.
“I can see that,” Punch said, and took Speed by the halter and walked him in a circle. Punch studied him and told me to just walk him forward a little. Punch stepped back and shined
the light on Speed’s legs and hooves, trying to see his gait. Punch squatted down and didn’t move for a while. I rubbed Speed’s neck and shoulders. It felt amazing to be on Speed’s back, amazing to have a cowboy squatting on the ground in front of me, watching.
“You see anything?” I asked.
“I see a good-looking girl on a nice horse,” he said.
“I mean about the horse,” I said.
Punch stood and shrugged.
“He’s an old horse,” Punch said. “I can’t tell how sick he is, but I’ll be honest with you, Hattie. I don’t like his chances of making it through a winter around here. Not pastured. If you could keep him in a barn somehow, well, he might stand a chance. But even then I wouldn’t be sure. How old did you say he is?”
“We don’t really know,” I said. “Old, though.”
Punch stepped forward and lifted Speed’s head. He fanned back Speed’s gums and inspected the horse’s mouth. I knew he was examining the wear on the teeth. Anyone who tried to guess a horse’s age did that. When he finished, he walked to Speed’s side and held up his hands to me. I swung my leg over Speed’s back and slid off into Punch’s arms. He eased the drop and set me on my feet. He had strong hands.
I moved back to Speed’s head.
“I can get Woody to come over,” Punch said, “but I’m not sure how much he can add. I’m not claiming to be the last word on horses, but he just looks old to me, Hattie. I’m sorry to say it.”
“Still,” I said.
Punch didn’t say anything. I kept my hands busy on Speed’s neck and ears.
“Why this horse?” Punch asked quietly.
“There’s got to be a reason,” Punch said. “Maybe you can’t say. I had a horse, not my first one but the second one. He wasn’t even as good as the first one, but I loved that horse. I don’t know why. He just got to me like some horses do.”
“I think,” I said, my forehead close to Speed’s, “Speed gets to me because he never fought back. Whatever anyone wanted from him, he gave. And he didn’t complain and he did it year after year. I don’t know. Somewhere along the line someone has to acknowledge that. He was a gentle, kind creature and he deserves a rest. I wanted him to be a horse, but maybe in some way he was more of a horse than a thousand stallions out on a prairie. Think of all the children he carried on his back, the joy he gave them, and he never asked for anything himself. He never would have thought to
ask for anything, so I have to ask for him. Day in, day out, he showed patience to everyone. I love him for that. He taught me that.”
I couldn’t look at Punch. He didn’t say anything anyway. He just took one of my hands and held it.
HE TELEVISION WAS STILL ON WHEN
GOT BACK TO OUR
room. It was late, probably around one. Delores was asleep, her head turned away from the television and the small desk lamp that sat on the bedside table between our beds. A half-empty bag of Cheetos sat with its mouth open, a few orange puffs, like fluffy molars, escaped onto the spread beside her. Her phone lay next to the Cheetos.
I slipped into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and then tiptoed back out. I pulled down the top blanket and slid into the other bed. It felt good to be in clean sheets, to be in a bed with a light nearby and a bathroom
handy if I wanted it. My body sunk into the mattress, and I felt a comfortable release. I clicked off the bedside lamp.
“So do they?” Delores asked when the light went out, her voice smoky with sleep.
“Do what?” I asked. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Do they kiss with their hats on?” she said. “Paulette wants to know as bad as I do.”
“Sometimes,” I said.
Her voice suddenly got stronger. “You tell me every detail, Ms. Hattie Wyatt, or I’m going to come over there and do something horrible. I’m too sleepy to think of what, but you tell me.”
“We just kissed and talked,” I said.
“He’s freaking gorgeous,” Delores said. “I told Paulette. He may be the most handsome boy I ever saw.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I didn’t say anything.
“Where?” she asked.
“Where did you go?”
“We sat in his truck. In Drew’s truck.”
“Ooooo la la.”
“Don’t make me feel weird about it,” I said. “We talked mostly.”
“Who’s doing that? I’m jealous. So is Paulette. She wants you to call her as soon as you get in.”
“I’ll tell her I didn’t come in until the morning.”
“You’ll give her a heart attack.”
“Sorry about Drew.”
“He’s too much like me,” she said, and laughed quietly.
I heard the Cheetos bag move.
“Are you eating?” I asked.
“Nawwww,” she said, her mouth full.
The bag suddenly landed on the bed beside me. I fished around for it until I found the open end. I had a handful and then threw them back to her. My stomach felt good and giddy.
“Do you like him?” she asked after she swallowed.
I heard her scoop out more.
“Yes, I do,” I said.
“Not too much, I hope.”
I ate the Cheetos.
“Be careful, sweetie,” she said. “We’re a long way from home.”
“I will be.”
“Sure you will, you cowboy wrangler.”
“Give back the Cheetos.”
I heard the bag ruffle, then land next to me. A little light
came in from outside, enough to make the bag look like a live thing as it flew through the air.
“I called my dad,” Delores said. “I asked if I could stay with him.”
I raised up onto my elbow. I could just make out her outline in bed.
“What did he say?”
“He said I could.”
“And how did he sound?”
“That’s wonderful, Delores.”
“I’d rather kiss a cowboy.”
“But that’s big news. That’s really big. Did you two talk at all?”
“Sort of. He kind of apologized for going ape about us taking the horse. And he said he always thought about me, and he said stories always have two sides. I guess he meant that Mom always said he just sort of ran off, but he was trying to say something different. He’s got an apartment over his garage. It’s small and not very fancy, but I could set up there for a while. He said we could get to know each other and see how it went.”