Authors: Joseph Monninger
“I’m really glad for you, Delores,” I said.
“I guess I won’t be coming back east with you.”
“I kind of knew you wouldn’t. Down in my bones, I knew it.”
“He’s going down to Mexico in a month or so when the weather gets bad. An annual trip, he said. He’s got a girlfriend there.”
“It’ll work out,” I said. “It already has.”
“We’ll still get Speed all set,” she said. “Don’t worry about that.”
“I’m not worried,” I said. “Everything is going to be all right for all of us.”
Then no one talked for a while. I thought Delores had dropped off. I lay in bed thinking how a day could change things, how a single phone call could change the whole direction of your life. I ran my tongue over the orange silt of the Cheetos on my teeth. A few quick images of Punch came to me, but I didn’t want them right then. They still burned and were too sharp. I needed to let them quiet down and become simple and still. I needed to back up a few steps, to let a little time go by.
“I’m going to live in Oregon,” Delores whispered. “It’s a whole new start.”
“I’m happy for you.”
Then suddenly she had slipped out of her bed and her arms came around me. She hugged me hard, and I could
tell she had started to let go of something. Call it fear, or the misgivings she had earlier in the night, but she cried for a few seconds and squeezed me so tight I couldn’t move.
“No one’s ever been a better friend than you,” she whispered. “Thank you for putting up with me. Thank you, Hattie.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “You’ve been good to me, too.”
She squeezed me once more. Then she climbed back into her bed.
“Quit hogging the Cheetos,” she said a few seconds later.
She laughed hard at her own joke, but for a while it sounded like tears and laughing mixed.
HIS IS PRETTY
ELORES SAID, HER HANDS AT TWO AND
ten on the steering wheel, her eyes scouting over the rolling countryside. “It’s kind of like what we envisioned for him.”
“And it’s a perfect day,” I said, the map Punch had drawn for us spread on my lap. “It doesn’t get better than this.”
“You sure this guy is expecting us?”
“Punch said he set it up. We can camp on his land for a little to see how Speed does. He’s got some mustangs out here. Punch said he gets a supplement from the Department of the Interior to let them roam around.”
“We should have gotten more supplies if we’re camping. I’m always hungry these days.”
“Maybe you’re pregnant.”
“You’d have to have a date to be pregnant.”
“You had a date with Drew.”
“If you call that a date.”
I shrugged. I couldn’t take my eyes off the land. It didn’t look as green as New England, but the sky had opened wide. Great white clouds migrated across the blue. The sun cut around the clouds and stitched out shadows on the hillsides. The land looked like a blanket someone had spread on a bed, not the last fluff, but the time before the last shake when you finally get the blanket more or less flat on the bed. It looked as if someone had shaken the mountains out of the land, but hadn’t gotten rid of everything. A stream crackled over the northern end of the drive, and we passed over water on a wooden bridge before ducking down into some sort of valley. The stream ran away from us, but we saw trees following down the hill, and far away it bent east again and scattered into pods of trees without any meaning. A barbed wire fence circled everything.
“This is pretty,” Delores said again. “This is a good possibility. Old Speedy is going to like it here.”
“Do you believe this sky?” I asked, sounding a little like a broken record. “You believe it can look like this?”
“It’s way open. And you’re in love. That makes everything look better.”
“It goes on forever. I didn’t know what it would look like, but now I do.”
“Blue Earth,” Delores said.
Then we saw horses.
I know it sounds crazy, but I saw them in my heart before I saw them on the sloping grade above us. Their hooves made a deep pounding sound, and a second later they appeared. Delores reached over and grabbed my arm and we sat frozen and watched them come. A herd of horses, all stirring up grass and dust and slobber. They ran right at us, flinging themselves along the ground, a few prideful males out on the flanks, ears flexing, tails up, hooves gouging the dirt. No halters, I realized. No anything. They ran naked and pure, a blend of muscle and hair and sound, and I felt my heart lift in my chest and nearly burst. Delores pulled over and jammed the truck into park and jumped out. I did, too. I couldn’t help running back to the trailer and yelling for Speed to look, and I bawled like an idiot, my chest heaving and unable to catch air. “That’s who you are,” I whispered to Speed. “That’s a true
horse.” Meanwhile Delores scrambled under the fence lining the road and ran at the horses. She held up her hands as if signaling a touchdown and ran as hard as she could. She tried to gallop, tried to be a horse, for all I knew, but they hardly noticed her. They swirled down the hill, dust lifting to cover them, and they seemed like a dream, some surreal movie effect, but Delores chased them, screaming her head off, laughing, too. In a second they left, disappeared, and Delores stopped and screamed more, yelled and jumped in one spot, wiggled her butt, wiggled everything, pawed at the ground. I reached in and put my hand on Speed.
“That’s what you are,” I whispered to him. “That’s who you are.”
KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING
just say I am
that I have one leg and one arm. Take a good look for a second or two at me. Then we’re going to get on with things and that’s the finish of it.”
Fry looked to be about sixty, and he was large and round and he had obviously been in an accident somewhere down the line. Something had chopped off his left hand and half his forearm. He clumped out of his house, a low, gray ranch
house, at the first sound of our truck. He wore his hair long, in an Indian braid down the center of his back, and carried a hoe in his good hand. He used the hoe as a cane.
“Looked enough?” he asked, his voice surprisingly reedy for such a big man. “It makes sense to get it right out in the open rather than having people peeking for the first couple hours. Got caught on a railroad bed, long story, but it had something to do with drink and just being young and stupid. So, now, let’s see this horse Punch mentioned.”
We went around the rear of the trailer and backed Speed out. He looked tired; some gunk had dammed up in his eyes, and he appeared weepy and stunned. Fry watched us, his weight on the hoe that he hooked under his good arm. He seemed ready to cultivate a garden, only I couldn’t see any plants to speak of around the house.
“Well, well, well,” Fry said. “All the way out from New Hampshire, you say?”
“He was a carnival horse. Gave rides to kids,” Delores said.
She took a flat, no-nonsense tone with him. He seemed to appreciate that.
“It’s a lot to ask of an old horse to run in a herd,” he said. “His best days are gone by.”
“We want him to be free for a while,” I said. “You know.”
“I don’t really ‘know,’ as you put it,” Fry said, shifting the hoe under his arm, “but if that’s what you want, you go ahead. You can camp up there by the trees. There’s some water there. I’m not promising anything about that horse. If anyone comes by to ask, you pretend you’re just camping. I get paid by the horse, at least most of the time, but they don’t keep good records. If he starts to suffer, we’ll put him down. No ifs, ands, or buts. You agree with those terms?”
“You should have a decent spell of weather. I don’t want you up there for long. A couple days, then you be on your way, with the horse or not.”
“Yes, sir,” Delores said.
“Don’t say ‘sir’ unless you mean it,” Fry said. “Nothing could be more insulting.”
“If he does okay, he can stay?” I asked, wanting to be sure.
“Makes no difference to me. I’ve got more acres than I know what to do with. Overwintering is a son of a gun. These horses are on a tight margin in January. You should know that.”
“Do you supplement their food?” I asked.
“I like horses,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. We feed them, but it’s still a long winter in Minnesota.”
He pointed again at the line of trees we had seen earlier.
“Up there,” he said. “Punch coming out later?”
“I knew his father is how come,” he said.
Then he turned around and headed toward the house.
I told Delores to drive the truck up while I walked Speed. I hooked a lead onto him. Delores bounced the truck and trailer up a long hill, heading for a clump of trees at the top. I watched her go, then turned around a couple times to see Speed’s gait. He still didn’t look good. Even in the middle of a glorious day, he looked like he drew more light into him than he reflected. I tried to think of remedies, things the Fergusons might have done, but I couldn’t come up with anything.
By the time we reached the top of the hill, Delores already had the tent spread out on the ground. She moved her arm like a television game-show model to point out how the land stretched around us. We hadn’t gained much elevation, but it was enough to crack open a view that went on for miles. I wondered aloud why Fry hadn’t built up here, and Delores said the wind would be ferocious all winter, and she was probably right. The trees gave us a sugary shade. I unclipped Speed to let him wander. He walked off a few paces and poked at the grass.
We set up the tent, stuck in our sleeping bags and pads,
and then ate an early lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We sat on the tailgate and watched Speed. He looked handsome walking along the ridgeline, even if he did look old. We needed to figure a way to get him water. After lunch, I figured, we could walk him down to the stream.
“We forgot to call Paulette,” Delores said, her mouth working on a sandwich. “She’s going to be nutty mad at us.”
“It would have been too late to call her, with the time difference.”
“True,” Delores said. “When I live in Oregon, you’ll have to call later in your day. You’ll be ahead of us.”
“I should call home,” I said, thinking of the phone.
“I’m sorry you have to travel back alone,” Delores said. “I guess it’s unavoidable.”
“What are you going to do about the trailer?”
“My dad said he could use it for his ATV. I’m going to have to pay Cousin Richard.”
“I can chip in.”
“You didn’t take it,” she said.
“Still,” I said.
“It’s one of those things that will probably go away if I don’t bring it up. Cousin Richard is a jackass and everyone knows it.”
Delores fixed us each another half a sandwich. We drank cherry water with it. I’m not sure what Delores thought, but I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact that we had come to the end of the trip. We hadn’t said it, but this was the last stop for Speed, one way or the other. We both knew that. In a day or two, maybe sooner, Delores was going to drop me at a bus station and she was going west and I was going east.
“What’s that poem you say about horses?” Delores asked, her sandwich halfway to her mouth.
“The Shakespeare quote?”
“ ‘He is pure air and fire,’ ” I said.
Delores repeated it.
“ ‘And the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him,’ ” I said.
“ ‘But only in patient stillness while his rider mounts him,’ ” I went on.
“ ‘He is indeed a horse; and all other jades you may call beasts,’ ” I finished.
She repeated it. Little by little she said it more fluently. I coached her through it. We watched Speed and kept saying
the lines together until eventually I couldn’t tell her voice from mine.
“ ‘He is pure air and fire; and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him, but only in patient stillness while his rider mounts him: he is indeed a horse; and all other jades you may call beasts,’ ” we said.
We were still practicing when Punch pulled up towing a horse trailer. He waved out the window. He had someone else in the truck with him, but I couldn’t see who. They pulled around the rough, circular driveway in front of Fry’s house. The trailer appeared twice as big as ours.
“You have a boyfriend,” Delores said, bumping her shoulder into mine.
“You’re full of it.”
“Well, why would he be here? And why would he set this all up if he didn’t like you?”
“I didn’t say he didn’t like me. I said he wasn’t a boyfriend.”
“You’re blushing,” she said, and I was.
“Just don’t be a jerk,” I said.
“You should run down the hill and leap into his arms. That would be romantic.”
“I stink of peanut butter,” I said.
“Punch and Hattie up in a tree …”
I whacked her with my shoulder to make her stop. We watched Punch jump out of the truck. An old man with bright white hair climbed out the other side. He waved as if we knew him. I waved back. The old man walked slumped over, the hinge of his belt cranked too tight. He exchanged a word or two with Punch by the truck’s nose, then put his hand on Punch’s shoulder and went toward the house. Punch turned toward us and headed up the hill.
UNCH KISSED ME ON THE CHEEK, SWEET AND NICE
smelled like horses and straw. He tipped his hat at Delores. Delores smiled. She liked cowboy manners.
“Pretty up here,” Punch said, looking around. “You guys all set up?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’re going to see how Speed does.”
“I brought Woody out. The rodeo vet. He had to come out this way to talk to Fry anyway, and he said he’d take a look at your horse.”
Something flip-flopped in my stomach.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I also brought some horses, in case we wanted to take a ride. All three of us. Delores, you interested?”
“I’d love to go for a ride,” she said.
She spun the loaf of bread closed and knotted a bread tie over it.