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Authors: Joseph Monninger

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BOOK: Finding Somewhere
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“Here he comes,” Punch said, watching the old man start up the hill.

Woody had to be seventy. He moved with difficulty, but he didn’t baby himself. He walked straight up the hill without stopping, his left arm swinging more freely than his right. Maybe a stroke, I thought. His skin, when he got closer, appeared spotted and thin, as if it had worn away in years of weather. His eyes, too, shone red and watery. Any wind at all lifted his hair, which was as thin and fine as milkweed.

I went over and collected Speed and walked him to meet Woody.

“Woody,” Punch said, “these are the girls I told you about. That’s Delores and this is Hattie.”

“From New Hampshire, eh? Well, that’s fine.”

He didn’t shake our hands, but he nodded to us. The bend in his waist kept his eyes low, as if he spent his entire life searching for something he couldn’t quite find on the ground in front of him. I walked Speed over to him. Woody lifted his head and inspected him.

“He’s a long way from home,” Woody said, putting his hand on Speed’s forehead. “Aren’t you, boy?”

He patted Speed’s forehead and then stopped and tried to see Speed’s eyes. Speed shook his head. Then Woody walked slowly around Speed, his eyes taking notes. He let his hand trail down Speed’s side.

“Walk him in a circle for me, would you, dear?” he asked me.

I did what he asked. Speed obliged me. We walked in a ten-foot circle. When we came back, Woody nodded at me.

“So is he your horse?” Woody asked. “Or do you both own him?”

“We both own him,” I said.

“He owns himself,” Delores said.

Woody glanced at her. Mostly he looked at the horse.

“And your idea is to pasture him out here for the winter with Fry’s herd?” asked Woody.

I nodded.

“Well, it’s anyone’s guess, of course, how he’ll fare,” Woody said, his hair lifting in the breeze. “Hard to say. I can tell you he’s old, but you know that. I suppose the best thing you can do is let him roam around a little and see what happens. He might surprise you. On the other hand, he might find it too much.”

“You don’t think he’s suffering?” Delores asked.

I looked at her.

“No, I don’t think so,” Woody answered. “Give him a day or two to get acclimated and see how he responds. Punch here will pull his shoes. He’s got the tools in the truck. Give him plenty of water. The winter might be too much for him, but you never know. And Fry’s humane about his decisions. He won’t let him suffer if it turns bad.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He stepped past Speed’s head and he took my hand. He squeezed. His eyes got wetter, and he nodded.

“We love them so,” he said.

I put my free arm around Speed and buried my face in his neck. Woody wiggled my hand just a little, then let it drop and headed back down the hill.

W
E FOLLOWED
P
UNCH WESTWARD, STAYING ON THE RIDGE
, the day slowing to afternoon and evening. A cooler wind had picked up and blew from miles of plains. We spotted the wild horses twice. Each time they scattered and swirled, not far, and the males on point scuffed and postured and bluffed. Punch rode easily, his long frame cocked in the saddle. Delores, to her credit, didn’t pretend to be a third wheel on a
date. She liked riding too much to allow a little romance to interfere with her pleasure. Sometimes she trotted ahead. She sat pretty on a horse. Punch, I imagined, had wondered if we could ride as well as we seemed to think we could, and I felt like we had given a fair accounting of ourselves.

It was a perfect day. The clouds continued to ride and sail, and the sky remained blue and quiet. My horse, a small sorrel named Taffy, possessed a sweet disposition. She preferred the rear, and I didn’t goad her forward. We rode in silence most of the way, because a lot of talking seems silly on a horse sometimes. After about an hour we let them drink in the stream that ran through the property. We dismounted and stood listening to water going over stones. The horses drank with their tunnel tongues, and you could see the water hit their bellies.

“We’re going to Boston next spring,” Punch said. “The rodeo, I mean. That’s not too far from New Hampshire, is it?”

“Almost neighbors,” Delores said. “Hattie can get to Boston no sweat.”

“I’d like to see New Hampshire,” Punch said. “You make it sound pretty nice.”

Afterward we climbed back up and raced a little. We
didn’t go flat out, just sort of cantered, but Taffy buzzed right along, and Spook, Delores’s horse, stayed beside her. Arthur, Punch’s horse, seemed a little clumsy beside them, but his gait ate ground and he bounced along. We had made it about halfway back when the sun threw our shadows ahead of us. I’m not sure what the others felt, but the moment seemed kind of special, like we were chasing our own ghosts. Our silhouettes danced ahead, and we connected at the horse’s hooves, each step mirroring the other in shadow, our bodies elongated and mythic, our shadow horses running ahead of us.

When we crested the last hill, I saw Speed. He stood behind the tent, his head down. He wasn’t eating. Mist covered him, and it took me a moment to distinguish him, to be sure he hadn’t become a wraith. I let out a shout, and I galloped right at him, and Punch caught my notion and did the same, and so did Delores. We thundered down at him, crazy horses, shadow horses, and for an instant Speed lifted his head and came alive. He snorted and took two steps off as we got closer.
He is indeed a horse
, I thought. I whooped again, and Punch swung his hat around. Delores stood high in her stirrups.

I wanted Speed to run once, just once, to head off free for
the first time in his life. For an instant he looked like he might do it. His posture grew and he shook his head, but as quickly as it had come, it left him. We rode up to him, slamming down to a stop, and he took the wind of our charge and shrank back to being an old horse. Our shadows ran over him, and then the mist caught them and turned them quiet and silver.

Chapter 9

“S
OME PEOPLE TRY TO MAKE CHILI AS HOT AS PAINT
thinner,” Fry said, his good hand stirring a large vat of chili, a beer open in front of him. He stood in a surprisingly clean kitchen in front of a Viking six-burner stove, a blue cook’s apron knotted around his neck. He liked to cook, obviously. The wall nearest the window contained more than a hundred cookbooks, most of them with exotic titles you didn’t see on a typical cook’s shelf.
How to Cook, Clean, and Reuse a Steer. Small Bird Recipes. Crawly Things: The Preparation of Least Meat
. A rack of cooking utensils, all gleaming, hung above the stove. Despite his infirmity, Fry moved around the kitchen gracefully, his good hand reaching accurately for anything he
required. He looked at home, and the chili smelled out of this world.

Fry had come up to our campsite to invite us in after we returned from the ride. Punch had taken Woody back to the rodeo with the horses, promising to return in the morning. He also told us that Fry’s chili was famous in that part of Minnesota, and that despite Fry’s gruff manner, he possessed a generous, open heart. So when we showed up at his door, hungry and looking to be out of the wind that had started blowing at sunset, we weren’t sure what to expect. Fry invited us in to sit at a kitchen bar and watch him prepare his famous chili. He said he had started cooking the chili a day and a half before and it was our good fortune that we showed up when we did.

“My uncle Willy makes it hot,” Delores said, sitting on a stool and watching him cook, an orange soda open in front of her. “You wouldn’t believe it. He calls it five-alarm and makes you sign a release before you eat it.”

“Now, no disrespect to your uncle, but that’s just the wrong idea,” Fry said. “You might as well stick your tongue out and sprinkle chili powder on it. A good chili has to have self-awareness. It has to be content to be what it is, at the same time yearning to be more.”

“Come off it,” Delores said.

Fry smiled. He seemed to appreciate Delores’s blunt manner. It felt as though they had known each other longer than half an afternoon. Delores liked kidding him.

“Do you get cell phone reception here?” I asked. “I probably should call home.”

Fry looked up from his stirring.

“Strange thing is, we do. And I have satellite, too. A guy explained to me that cell phone signals jump around. You might have to walk up the hill a little, and sometimes you need to wait until full nightfall, but you can usually get it.”

“I’ll try it now,” I said, “if there’s time.”

“Well, this will be ready in about fifteen minutes. I have some corn bread in the oven, too. The timing should be about right,” Fry said. “Delores, you mind helping me set the table? We’ll just eat right here at the bar.”

Delores hopped off her stool. I slipped into my barn jacket and stepped outside. The sun had dipped down behind the small rise, and cold air flowed from the west. A few stars had stuttered out of the last sunlight and blinked, slow and steady, as they gained strength. I stayed in the porch light until I dialed. When I heard the phone ringing, I walked up toward our campsite, keeping the phone to my ear. My mom picked up on the third ring.

“Hattie,” she said.

“Hello, Mom,” I said.

“Now where are you? I’ve been worried sick.”

“We’re in Minnesota. We’re actually turning around in the next day or so.”

“Delores, too?” she asked.

I heard my mom turn a faucet on, then turn it off.

“No, she’s going out to Oregon to try things with her dad for a while. That’s the plan right now.”

“Well, okay. That’s probably for the best. And what about the trailer? She’s taking that with her?”

“Yes. I’ll grab a bus in Blue Earth. That’s in Minnesota, right where we are.”

“And Speed’s going to stay there?”

I couldn’t answer. I felt my throat close and my eyes get wet, and my chest felt like someone stood on it.

“What is it, honey?” my mom asked after a second or two. “Is Speed okay?”

“Yes,” I said, starting to cry. “I just worry I was selfish to bring him. Maybe I made him suffer more than he needed to and it’s my fault if he did. He’s not doing great, and I don’t think anyone except me thinks he has a prayer of making it through the winter. I just saw it all wrong.”

My mom took a deep breath.

“Loving an animal is never wrong, Hattie,” she said quietly. “I’m proud of you.”

I started crying harder.

“I am,” she said softly. “You tried something brave and courageous, and maybe it won’t work out quite the way you wanted, but things have a way of curving away from us. You loved that horse. I ran into Mrs. Ferguson at the Stop and Shop the other day … and she was so concerned for you and Speed. She said every horsewoman has a
one
, a horse that gets into her heart and stays there to her last day. She said she had a horse named Ali Baba when she was about your age, and she loved that horse more than anything. So she understands, Hattie, and I do, too. Don’t take it out on yourself. You did what you thought was best.”

I couldn’t speak. I felt my heart breaking.

“Is he actually failing?” Mom asked after some more time had passed.

“No,” I managed. “Not entirely.”

“Where there’s life, there’s hope, Hattie,” she said. “Remember that.”

“I will.”

“And tell me you’re safe.”

“I am, Mom. Delores, too. We’re going to probably wait
here another day and see if Speed can adjust. We’ll walk him down to the herd and see what happens.”

“Herd?”

“This man named Fry has a wild horse ranch here. He lets them run free. That was our idea for Speed all along.”

“Well, see?” Mom said. “You never know. Miracles happen, Hattie. You’re giving Speed a chance, at least.”

Neither one of us spoke. Delores came out of the door and called me to dinner. I yelled back that I’d be right there.

“You do me a favor and give Delores a great big hug for me,” my mother said. “She’s one of my girls, too. You tell her I’ll miss her.”

“Okay, Mom.”

“I’m proud of you. You remember that.”

“Thank you, Mom,” I said. “I’ll call when I find out my connections and the schedule and everything. It will probably take a couple days to get home.”

“Okay, sweetheart,” she said. “You come home to me safe and sound. I love you.”

“Love you,” I said, and closed the phone.

BOOK: Finding Somewhere
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