Authors: Joseph Monninger
T WAS LATE WHEN THE HORSES CAME
I felt them first deep down in my spine, the thud of their hooves like the child’s game of tapping your friend’s back while she tries to speak or sing a silly song. Then for a second the sound disappeared and I woke, or I dreamed, and a minute later, an hour later, the horses reappeared. They came up the hill, their hooves pounding, and I remembered stories I had heard about buffalo shaking the earth when they passed, of miles of black, hairy beasts, and the Sioux and the Crow riding their horses into the stream of buffalo and shooting arrows point-blank into their skulls and necks. Then the animals would fall, another thud, a longer one with a dirty skid, but now, in the night, it was the horses I heard, their hooves like something pounding to be let inside. I felt Delores’s hand come onto my shoulder, and she whispered, “Do you hear them?”
The question meant nothing. Sounds and shaking gobbled it up, and Delores slid out of the tent, me right behind, and we stood to find the horses running past. Horses everywhere, horses spooked, horses mad with the autumn night, the chilly stars, the blasting wind that came and turned my feet to ice. Delores grabbed my hand and pulled me next to the trees so I wouldn’t be trampled. She let out a wild yell,
and I yelled with her, my heart going up and feeling crazy, because we were inside the herd. I smelled horse. Horse created the wind. Horse created the dirt and the stringy flicks of moisture that coated the grass. Horse pounded the hill until it shook and relented.
Delores rocked back and screamed her heart out, and I did, too, and the horses flashed by, white eyes wild and searching, legs prancing and reaching to keep steady on the terrain. “Go, go, go, go,” I whispered at the tail end of my shout. And this was why I loved horses. This was why horses were indeed horses and all other jades mere beasts. I bent back and tucked behind the tree, and the horses split around us like water breaking over rock. Delores slipped out her hand from behind the tree, and it took me a second to understand, but then I did. I put my arm out, too, and a second later a horse ran by and shoved my hand hard back at me, then another, my hand sometimes touching cheek, or flank, or tail. I kept my arm slack so that nothing would catch or pull, but instead I was a turnstile feeling the horses pass, not one but twenty, not an individual horse, but all horses. Crazy thoughts spilled through my head, and before I could do anything about them, the horses disappeared. They sucked air after them, left dust, and it took us a second to comprehend what had happened. I turned to Delores and
she turned to me, and we hugged without saying a word. We hugged long and hard. And we both knew what it was about. We both knew this was the end of something, and the beginning, and that horses were mixed up in it in ways we’d never be able to explain. I felt her crying, and I cried, too, and then we both saw how nutty it all was and we started to laugh. I felt her body shake and she felt mine, and we pushed away, grinning, and I couldn’t help myself. Who would ever be inside a horse herd if not us, and when would we ever be again, and I was still laughing when Delores reached out and yanked me against her again.
“Speed’s gone,” she whispered into my ear. “He’s a horse.”
We checked everywhere we could think of, each second’s passing providing us with an insane, mad hope.
Speed was gone. He had vanished.
We looked a long time, calling to each other whenever we separated, but we turned up nothing. Afterward we fixed the camp. The horses had trampled things, but the truck and trailer had prevented them from getting too close. A V of horse prints went around our gear and narrowed out below it.
“Fry should have told us they could come up this way,”
Delores said. But she didn’t seem angry, and neither was I. But truthfully, we could have been injured.
When we bedded down again, it was nearly morning. Delores had trouble settling. She fluffed half a dozen times the backpack that served as a pillow, her body spinning to find a comfortable spot. Each time she moved, she hit the tent walls and made the sleeping mats whistle.
“Do you think he ran?” I asked, wishing I had seen it, wishing I could know for sure.
“I think he ran,” Delores said, finally flopping down. “I think he was a horse for once in his life.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“They just swept him up. He didn’t have a choice.”
“You really think Speed ran?” I asked again, still having trouble getting my mind around it.
“Did you feel them go by?” she said, not quite answering. “I couldn’t believe what they felt like.”
“Weird that they were running at night, isn’t it?”
“Something could have scared them. You never know. Speedy boy went right with them. I’m telling you.”
“I want to see him.”
“We can find him tomorrow. Fry said he needed to bring some hay out, and we can ride along. He said they stay down by the stream mostly.”
“And Punch will be out.”
“And Punch will be out,” Delores said, “that’s right.”
The morning sun turned the top of the tent pale green. It wasn’t light as much as the promise of light. I closed my eyes, trying to feel the pounding of the horses again through my back. But they had moved away, and I didn’t feel anything except a good wind that blew up and over the hill.
“I’m leaving tomorrow, I think,” Delores said. “It’s time.”
“You mean today?”
“I guess it is today. After we see Speed.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You’re leaving, too, right?” she asked.
“I guess so. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
“Speed made it,” she said. “I mean, we won’t know for sure until we see him, but it looks like he made it.”
“I still can’t believe it.”
“It was because of you, Hattie,” Delores said. “You brought him here. I helped, but you brought him.”
“We both brought him.”
“Well, I don’t know, but here he is. He might surprise us. And I trust Fry to be good with the animals. He’ll look after him.”
“I trust him, too,” I said. “And he makes good chili.”
“Amazing chili!” Delores agreed, her voice going up with energy.
“And the corn bread.”
“Give me some corn bread,” she said, making her voice deep and commanding. “Give me some corn bread
“I’ll remember those horses hitting my hand the rest of my life.”
“Me too,” Delores said.
“And the way the earth shook.”
“Yes, blue earth.”
A little while later Delores said she loved me.
“I want you to know that,” she said. “Whatever happens in the rest of our lives, I want you to know you were my friend.”
I rolled closer and hugged her. A cricket landed on the tent wall and stayed there. It buzzed away in the morning light, summer going with it once and for all.
RODE IN THE BACK OF
RY’S HALF TON, OUR
butts planted on a huge pile of hay bales, our backs against the truck cab. Delores sat in front with Fry, happy to be a supervisor and not a worker. Whenever Fry slowed down,
Punch and I each shot onto our feet and threw a bale over the side. Fry paused a second to let us get our balance and sit back down, then the truck moved on. The hay smelled wonderful, like timothy and sage, but it grated the skin on my forearms. I rolled down the sleeves of my flannel shirt and tucked my fleece closer. After that, I didn’t have any problems.
The sun couldn’t beat back the cold air that pushed in with each passing hour, and by late morning I felt chilled. Fry’s radio claimed we might get a frost that night. The stream appeared now and then in our passage, and fallen leaves clogged any slower-moving water. Twice we spotted the horse herd, but we didn’t stop to watch them. I strained to see Speed each time, then the truck moved, and Fry tapped the top of the cap with his good hand, and we continued.
“Don’t you worry,” Punch said after the second time. “Fry wouldn’t be prolonging the tension if he didn’t think Speed was okay.”
“I just want to see him.”
“It’s quite a thing,” Punch said. “Him coming back to life like that.”
“We don’t know for sure.”
Before Punch answered, Fry stopped the truck.
We jerked to our feet and tossed a bale on either side
of the truck. I heard Delores singing country-and-western music like a crazy woman. We sat down once we launched the bales. Fry drove on.
“Well, he’s around somewhere,” Punch said, his body at ease against the truck cab. “He can’t get out, and I don’t see any buzzards.”
“A fact of life, is all, Hattie,” he said.
He took my hand as we went along.
By late morning we had nearly emptied the truck, leaving rectangles of hay scattered over most of the acreage. I couldn’t be sure, but it dawned on me that Fry had taken a long way around, checking to make sure no animal had gone down. Punch hadn’t been kidding about buzzards. Fry hadn’t wanted to drive right up to the herd first thing in case the run had been too much for Speed. He had circled around, letting us help him deliver hay, before he swept back and parked the truck above the herd. It was just noon, and the horses grazed in the sun.
Delores jumped out as soon as Fry stopped the truck, and she scrambled up beside us. We had a perfect view of the herd from the back of the truck. The herd stretched down to the stream and into the shade of the trees. I started to count the horses, but gave up after reaching a hundred. Three
hundred, I guessed. Maybe less. Five minutes before I would have bet money that I could find Speed in any congregation of horses, seen him no matter what, but I couldn’t spot him for the longest time. Each instant I thought I saw him, he disappeared, or the horse under observation blended into the herd and obscured his outline.
“You see him anywhere?” Fry called up.
“Not yet,” Delores called back.
“Well, look a little longer, and then we’ll head back. He’s in there somewhere.”
Delores spotted him a few minutes later.
She screamed and pounded the top of the truck.
“Right there, right there.” She pointed to the lower left section of the horses. “Right beyond that white one.… See him? That’s him. There he is.”
And it was.
I saw him as he grazed near the back of the herd, his nose pushing grass. He looked different somehow, wilder, but he was still Speed. He ate quietly, his concentration on the food in front of him. He appeared entirely average, just one of the herd, but seeing him made my heart go up. Delores slipped her arm around my waist.
“He’s a horse, Hattie,” she whispered. “Speed is finally a horse.”
“He’s beautiful,” I said, my eyes filling.
“He’s free, and he’s part of a herd. That’s paradise for a horse,” Punch said.
“He ran, I think,” I said, and started to cry. “I think he ran with the other horses.”
“Sure he did,” Delores said.
“And now he’s just eating, and all around him he has other horses. And no kids to kick him or tell him to go faster. If he died tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind. Not like before,” I said.
“I know,” Delores said. “It was all worth it.”
Then the horses started to move. They didn’t sprint or run wildly as they had the night before, but something made them raise their heads and shove off a dozen steps. Speed went, too. He lifted his head and his ears went forward, and for just an instant he ran. His legs lifted and his body soared forward. Delores squeezed my waist. I watched as long as I could, watched until the horses moved on, Speed at the tail of the herd, but part of it, part of everything.
EANING AGAINST HIS TRUCK
UNCH A LONG KISS
at the gate to Fry’s land. Punch’s truck pointed west. Ours pointed east, into Blue Earth, where Delores would deliver me to the bus station. Punch kissed me and then whispered
into my ear that he had enjoyed getting to know me, that he hoped to see me in Boston, that not to worry, Fry knew his horses and he would send word if anything happened to Speed, but that all the signs looked promising, and Fry would do what he could, I could count on it. Then Punch kissed me one more time, said he didn’t believe in long goodbyes, couldn’t stand them, in fact, and he stepped into his pickup and started it. He waved to Delores, and she waved back. She yelled to say hello to Drew, who was meeting him at the next rodeo stop, but I couldn’t be sure he heard her.
“That is one handsome cowboy,” she said as I climbed inside the truck.
“He’s a great guy.”
“We better move it if you’re making the bus.”
We drove back the way we came, following a country road Punch had recommended. The trailer rattled behind us, less grounded now without Speed to anchor it.
“You got everything you need?” Delores asked me.
“I wish you’d take more of the money. We were supposed to split it fifty-fifty.”
“You’re going to need some money out in Oregon, Delores. It will all wash out in the end. And if anything goes wrong with the truck on the way there, well, you should have it.”
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
Delores hustled us along, and I watched out the window. I couldn’t quite believe it was over. At 3:47 I would climb on a bus and head back east, and in a day or two, not much longer, I would end up in White River Junction, Vermont, not far from where we started. My mom would pick me up, and she would be nice, interested, but she would let her concern about my future creep in, and pretty soon we’d start gnawing on each other again. Mostly, though, I felt like life had taken a turn, one I couldn’t quite understand yet, but that something was happening whether I wanted it to or not. And I thought of Speed, too, who had probably figured his life was over, if he thought at all, but in a week’s time he ended up on a ranch in Minnesota, a wild horse. You couldn’t know what might happen.
“I miss him,” I said.
“Who?” Delores asked, grabbing a plug of bubble gum and unwrapping it with her teeth. “Speed or Punch?”