A Kingdom for a Horse
The steel toed boots left distinct footprints in the dusty Montana dirt. Small sand storms of dust flew from the ground each time the cowboy walked forward, then returned to their origins. The horse’s hooves made similar storms but her steps were less deliberate. She did not know where she was going or where she was coming from, she had nothing to look forward to but nothing in the past haunted her as it did her leader. He did have somewhere to go, but he had not informed his steed. But to any observer the pair just appeared to be walking.
The harsh Montana sun had caused the mare to falter, which explained why the two walked as equals rather than master and servant. The cowboy had realized long ago that their partnership was based on respect. He respected the fact that their journey was long, the temperature was hot, and he was an excessive burden to her. Thus he had dismounted. Now he scuffed his rowels in the dust, and she played with the copper roller in her mouth complacently. If he had wanted to, he could have draped the leather reins around her neck; she would not stop following. But the worn strips were an anchor; a reminder that they were attached and they had a destination. And still they just walked.
As the Montana sun rose higher, the cowboy appreciated the growing lather on the mare’s neck. He raised a hand to wipe it away, but the contrast between the blood bay of her coat and the creamy foam impressed him. Rather than admitting his change of mind, he wiped the sweat from his brow instead. His suede hat cast artificial shadows across his face, and he continued to sweat and sweat. The mare wasn’t bothered by her wet neck, she continued to drag her feet and flick flies off her back. Each fly she displaced either returned to her skin or gathered on the cowboy instead. But the heat bothered him more than the bugs, he tried again to wipe away sweat. The salt leaked into his eyes. They paused while he blinked it away. Then they continued to walk.
The beat of their steps were perfectly timed. The four beat walk of the horse complimented the drag of boots; the spurs provided percussion. Their symphony filled the Montana air. Once they reached a trough, the horse nudged her leader. She did not recognize him as a friend, but as a provider. She did not nudge him in affection, but in necessity. He obliged, letting her drink while he washed his face. He was impressed by her again, this time not by her growing sweat but by the copious amounts of water she took in. He appreciated the way the hollows above her eyes filled with each swallow; the way she inhaled her nostrils so she could breathe and drink at the same time. He saw her as a loyal companion, perhaps the only female relationship he could maintain. He didn’t know that she saw him only as the man who fed her, cleaned her, worked her. Whether it would have effected their relationship, one could not say. To him, horses had always been part of life. They provided work and money, along with company. He had never read literature on the beasts, but a cowboy could appreciate a horse as much as any poet or novelist. He waited her to finish, then they started to walk again.
They had almost arrived at the destination; the barbed wires common of Montana. They needed checking; the cows were about to be moved to this part of the ranch. It was a usual chore for the pair; one they had done plenty of time before and one they would do again and again. The cowboy could see the first section of fence that needed repair. They didn’t adjust their pace as they walked towards it.
He took out a screwdriver from the Montana leather saddlebags. The bags had been in the family for ages, made from the skins of the ancestors of the cows that currently roamed. He held the screwdriver skillfully as he twisted together two wires. The horse stood ground tied, half watching the man work, half dozing in the heat. He finished it quickly and they walked on.
As they approached the next section, they both heard a sound uncommon to Montana. There was a distant rumble of machinery in the distance. The cowboy kept pulling the horse on, but she had pricked her ears in the direction of the noise. Finally, he gave up as well and focused on the growing dust bowl approaching them. He had seen a car before, but never so close to the property. He didn’t understand their use; why was a monster of metal and rubber so much better than a horse. Flesh was simple and predictable. But he had heard of more automobiles in town and in nearby towns as well. He had been told that in Helena there was twenty of them. A whole army. He could not comprehend it. The horse also analyzed the creature. Its harsh lines reminded her of nothing she had seen before. Perhaps if they had worked on a farm she would have seen a tractor type before. But cattle had no need for engines. She inspected the beast, and decided she did not like it nor trust it. Horses were used to being the biggest and the fastest. These facts had protected them for centuries against mountain lions and wolves. But she was a horse; she still trusted the fact that she was better than the thing. She didn’t know to see otherwise. Once the pair and fully observed the automobile, they started to walk again.
But this time the air was different. There was a tension between the two, chased into place by the car. Before, they had been equal. Now knowledge separated them. Not that the cowboy knew anything more about cars, but he knew to fear them. He knew they would disrupt his life, perhaps change something. The horse saw it as a freak appearance; she had already forgotten the incident. The tension, like the car, was man made.
In order to chase the meeting from his mind, the cowboy focused on where he was and what they were doing. It was a mile until the next section. There would be no cars there. He had a roll of wire strapped to his saddle. The landscape of his home was comforting to him. Every winter it would snow, and he would fight through blizzards to take care of all the animals. In summer there would be unbearable heat, and he would butcher the cows to pay for the next three seasons. He had heard of poisonous snakes inhabiting Montana along with the mammalian predators. No dangerous snakes had ever appeared to him though, and the rumors of rattlers made him laugh. Although summer wasn’t even here, the cowboy felt dizzy in the heat. He craved to sit on the horse again, but he knew respect restricted this. He wanted to hear the creaking of old leather underneath him, a sound that machines could never take away. To him, the most relaxing view was that seen between two horse ears. He knew the view from this mare so well. The terrain of Montana was the same everywhere; dust, sparse foliage, cattle. But from atop a horse it was magical. It empowered a lowly man. Give a man a horse, a pair of spurs and a high port bit and he will conquer the world.
The cowboy reflected back on the mare. She was going on six years old, a good age for a cattle horse. Old enough she knew the job but young enough that her joints gave her no problems. She was a good one, the mutts always were. He knew there was Quarter Horse in her, there was Quarter Horse in every western one. There was a smattering of Paint, her sire had been quite splashy. But it was the Mustang that made her durable. They were outrageously ugly animals, apparent in her Roman nose. But her good breeding had protected her from bowlegged-ness and weak hocks. In exchange for the exquisite faces of Arabians or Morgans, she had gotten the will power to walk or trot tens of miles every day. The cowboy knew he could ride her if he really wanted to; her Mustang would give her the strength. But it still struck him as against nature to force his weight on her back.
He had been with her since her birth. He knew her sire and dam, both trustworthy, hardworking horses. There was nothing equivalent to watching a horse be born. Nothing equivalent to watching it stand for the first time either. He had watched both, and more. He was the first the put a saddle on her back. She wasn’t the kind to collapse underneath it, like he had seen before. Neither did she buck and rear. It almost saddened him, her complacency. But she took the bit in a similar manner, caught on the strength of it quickly. A bit slow to understand leg commands, but within her third year he had her roping and racing. She was one of three he had broken that year, but she was the most promising. The other two were auctioned off to buy new fencing. Such was ranch life; connections were idiotic. Nothing stayed around long.
When his father had passed, he had ridden this mare away. He had camped on the property for a month with her, biding time before accepting the responsibility of the ranch. However, when he returned, he found relief in his uncle taking care of things. He was told just to keep breaking horses, herding cattle, and fixing fences. The cowboy didn’t know what he would do when he actually had to maintain the land. He didn’t think about it either. His father’s death had been two years ago. Life had moved on.
The pair arrived at the next section. The cowboy guessed from the sun that it was almost noon time. After his fixed up this broken wiring, he would eat his lunch. As he sat down to work he heard another unfamiliar noise. But this was no machine, but a more natural sound. The horse had noticed it too. But she was taught to fear this, and she began to dance at her ground tie. The cowboy stood up quickly and made eye contact with a rattlesnake. By the time it registered in his mind, the mare was frantic. She knew to stay with the man, to stay where her reins stationed her, but true instinct told her to run or attack. Pure instinct took over, and she began to fly backwards. Right before she was about to pivot, the cowboy watched her foot step into a small hole, most likely a prarie dog hole of some sort. He watched in slow motion as her perfect, un-bowlegged leg twisted and then he heard the sound every partner never wanted to hear. A perfect crack, a ear piercing scream, a clean bone poking out of blood bay flesh. The scream jarred the man, but even more so the snake, who writhed away. The mare screamed again as all 1000 pounds of muscle and soul hit the ground. But she quieted down as soon as she curled into fetal position. He observed this all as if he wasn’t really part of it. And he wasn’t. It was God’s animals coming face to face and reacting. It was natural, and tragically beautiful. This thought paused in his head for a moment, but his rushed run over to the mare left it behind. This time he did wipe the lather from her, running his hand all along her shaking body, avoiding the obvious. Her entire femur was protruding, stuck out enough that blood couldn’t even seep by. But he knew it wouldn’t matter even if the break was a less drastic one; when a horse broke a leg it was the end. Finally he forced himself to address the fracture. He touched the bone, and was surprised at how real and natural it felt. It wasn’t plastic-y or rough; it could only be described as bony. The jagged end of it was reflected in the mare’s eye, masking the fear and pain she felt. Her chest was rising and falling in a disconcerting pattern. He stopped staring at her eyes, and instead pulled her mane so all the hair fell on one side. He knew what he had to do, but wanted to pretend this wasn’t happening for just a moment more.
He crawled to her belly and began to undo the cinch. He acted it out as if he was just untacking her after a day of work. He brought up the webbed cinch to its holder, and curled the leather around itself. He pulled it off gently, as always not to twist her spine. Her belly rose and fell.
He took the worn, wool pad from her back as well. There was a faint sign of a pattern on it, faded years ago from sun and work. Next he went to her head, avoiding eye contact. He put his fingers underneath the head band, feeling the short hair of her bridle path. He pulled it over her ears, and let the bridle fall away from her face. He pretended to be surprised when she didn’t try to hold the bit in her mouth as usual; instead she let it fall away in order to breathe easier. He rolled up the reins into a perfect spiral; it was at this moment he had to admit the change. At this point in untacking he would usually throw a rope halter on her and let her back into the herd. But he could not pretend that now. Instead he finally met her eyes. Her nostrils were still desperately trying to suck in air, but her eyes held only the faintest traces of fear and discomfort. Instead, there was a look of respect. He mirrored the expression, and they both remained in the dust for a moment just staring. Then the mare’s eyes rolled back and he knew what happened next. He held his hand up to her chest for a brief moment, feeling that strong heart pump away. Then he stood and backed away.
He could feel the ever cool metal of the pistol in its holster. He had never used it before, although he knew how to. It was a protectant against mountain lions and other things; also to be used as a warning at night for beasts to stay away from the cattle and the horses. He traced the engraving along the top and back, fingering the trigger. Finally he pulled it out. There was a comforting weight in it, the weight of something real and tangible. The weight followed him as he drew it up and aimed. The first shot rose a cloud of dust. The second hit its target. He stood there for a moment, transfixed by what he had just done. Then he put the pistol back in its home and strode towards the mare. Her eyes were as clear as before, but empty. The bone was still bony, but her chest no longer rose and fell.
He picked up the saddle deliberately, and hoisted it onto his hip. The bridle went on his shoulder. The scuff of boots and clinks of rowels disturbed the air. He walked away into the Montana sun.
He was a man of horses, or of perhaps a horse. He had no need for horsepower or headlights or rearview mirrors. But he was a man of work, and transportation. So there he stood on the road, saddle on hip, bridle on shoulder, feeling the still warm copper roller as he waited for the next automobile to pass him by.