The horse went down on a horizontal stretch of trail where no sound horse had any business stumbling. The quadrupe-dal rhythm broke suddenly, his near shoulder crumpled, his head sank at the end of the black-maned neck, until the horse seemed to be wanting to kneel and kiss the ground. I let out rein and sat back in the saddle, expecting him to recover himself and get up on all four feet again. Instead, he kept going down, and down, past the recovery point, until I came off like a sheik descending from a camel, only harder, striking a kneecap on a rock, my shapeless felt hat bowling alongside over the ground, keeping up. From the corner of my eye I observed the horse complete a somersault a few feet away, idly calculating whether he was going to fall on me or not. I heard Norma’s shout from behind as the horse scrambled to get his legs under him and onto his feet, retrieved the hat from a bed of mountain lupin, and stood up, rubbing the knee with my free hand. The horse shook himself all over under the loosened saddle, gazed reproachfully over his shoulder as if the wreck had been my fault, then turned to graze a clump of the sparse grass.
“Are you all right?” Norma asked anxiously, sitting the mare who had also begun to graze. “I thought you hit your head when you went off.”
“Not my head, my knee.” The rock had torn a hole in the faded denim where the black blood oozed. “I’m all right,” I told her, going for the gelding. “He’s history, though. Somebody’s been trying to tell me something for years,” I added as I reached for the hanging reins. “This afternoon, I finally got the message.”
I made it up to the saddle on the third try and started along the trail again, trying not to pressure the throbbing knee. Afternoon clouds gathered above Medicine Bow Peak where fresh snow had been that morning after a night of wind and cold. As the sky darkened toward the September evening, a cold wind sluiced between the angled ridges of the Snowy Range. The gelding stumbled twice more on the ride back to camp without seeming to notice, never watching the trail or his feet but always the dark treeline, the freestanding boulders, the blackened stumps of trees, holding rigid and tense, prepared to shy sideways in the trail. I pulled his head in and maintained equal tension on the reins to point him straight in the trail, until the ground really did become rough and he needed freer rein for balance.
“We’ve been here before,” I said, “but that was sixteen years ago. A five-year-old horse can learn something. This one’s forgotten everything he ever knew in the last six months.”
“You act as if you’re scared of him, after all these years,” Norma said.
“I’m not scared. He’s just a dangerous horse to be on in this country. If I’d had the packs behind, the bedroll up front, and my gun on my shoulder, I wouldn’t have come off back there.”
“He could have killed you,” she said, helpfully.
“Maybe worse. If we were still married, you could’ve had another Christopher Reeve on your hands for the rest of my life—or yours.”
“I’d have known you needed me, then. I wouldn’t have divorced you.”
“Let’s not go into that again. Having the future of a horse to decide is more than enough responsibility for one afternoon.”
In camp, I picketed the horses above Arrowhead Lake while Norma brought in wood. We met at the campfire for oysters and whisky, seated side by side on a log before the waving flames while the valley darkened rapidly between the opposed granite walls and a final ribbon of sunlight striped the top of the west-facing cliff a thousand feet above the camp.
“You remember in the Absarokas two years ago, he’d been eyeballing the black timber on his left, then spooked in the same direction and went down on his side with my leg underneath him? A sound horse just doesn’t do that. And now, in addition to everything else, he doesn’t want to be caught—turns his butt to me, and lifts one of his back feet as if he’s offering to kick when I come up on him.”
“He’s always been a different horse,” Norma agreed.
“I should have called him Crazy Horse,” I said, “except that Crazy Horse was a great man. Not someone who deserved to have a knothead horse named after him.”
We ate supper while bull elk bugled from the surrounding forest and the bow-hunters answered them with their tubes. It didn’t take an amorous cow to identify the inexpert ones, who sounded like cockerels trying to imitate a rooster’s crow. We turned in early and stretched ourselves in the bags on the ground, which felt very hard and cold to my swollen knee. I lay awake thinking about the horse, whether his eyesight could be failing or he’d developed arthritis or some neurological problem that affected his balance, until the solid strike of raindrops on the tent roof changed to the scrape of sleet and I fell asleep hearing the restless horses stamp the ground as they shifted around on their tie ropes to stay dry beneath the sheltering firs across the camp.
In the morning, the little snow that had fallen melted after sunup, and my knee felt better, the swelling diminished and some of the stiffness gone out of it. We built up the fire for breakfast and then struck camp, loaded the packs on the horses, and scattered the fire ring in the small clearing.
“Aren’t you going to ride?” Norma asked in surprise as I picked up the reins and started off on foot, leading the gelding.
“I can give you a leg-up to save your knee.”
“It isn’t my knee that’s the problem, it’s the damn horse. If it wasn’t for getting the packs out, I’d shoot him and leave him right here by the lake.”
“You’re trying to talk yourself into getting rid of him. Aren’t you?”
“I don’t have to try and talk myself into anything. I made up my mind this morning while I was looking at my knee. He’s twenty-one-and-a-half now, too old to be worth the medical bills—assuming a vet can do anything for him in the first place. This horse is worth probably $700, dead meat. As soon as we get home this afternoon, I’m calling the trader in Rock River to come and pick him up.”
The horse trader estimated $900 over the phone and asked if I wished him to add the horse to a load he was pulling over to Cheyenne the next morning. I told him yes, then called Dr. Hopper in Laramie, who thought the problem could be eyesight or arthritis and offered me an appointment the next morning. I said I couldn’t get over there in the morning and would call again in a day or two when I had some time on my hands. Next, I phoned the trader back and told him we’d have to make it some other time, as I had to leave town suddenly. Finally, I went to a bar downtown and ordered whisky-on-the-rocks with soda—a well-known cure for a sore knee. Once the knee problem was solved, I reckoned the other thing would fall into place after it.
I had bought Saab Star 20 years before from a lady in Kemmerer who had the barber shop I’d dropped into for a haircut. Linda Cronenburg was a willowy blonde in her 30’s with a long neck and still longer mane, and I had to wait my turn behind the other men as I picked through the horse magazines laid out on the table. As soon as I was up in the chair, I asked about those magazines: In quarter-horse and Appaloosa country, it was a surprise to find Arab magazines lying around a barber shop. By the time I got down from it, I’d agreed to drive 45 miles to Cokeville the following afternoon to look over the 18-month-old Arab stallion Linda had received as part of her divorce settlement from her ex-husband in Montana. He was a beautiful black bay horse, delicate but strong looking, with a confirmation that already had won him first place in a halter-class showing and a papered lineage—a quarter of which, at least, was champion stock. The asking price was only $1,500; Norma was willing; my two stepdaughters, more than willing. For a year-and-a-half-old stud, it was now or never, and so my first act as Saab Star’s owner was to trailer him to the vet clinic in Oakley, where Bill Wilson put him down and cut him while I sat on his head to hold the rag of oriental rug in place across his eyes. (I’ve thought many times in the two decades since that Bill must have cut him proud, but that’s another story.) That winter, I boarded Star on Fred Chambers’ homestead on Twin Creek ten miles west of Kemmerer, where Fred and I hauled water daily through the snow until spring came, Fred hauled his trailer home out from town, and had a well drilled. All that winter, I worked with the little horse and, as soon as the snow was gone from the corral, began to groundbreak him, using a longe-line and whip to teach him his voice commands and gaits—without the saddle at first, then under it. It was early September when I swung up on his back for the first time and let him feel my bootheels, very gently, in his flanks. At the crucial instant, a horse may do almost anything . . . or nothing at all. This one, in his startlement, broke to a run—and went down almost at once on his face in the soft sand under the brown hanging jaw of Fred, watching from his spectator’s seat on the top pole of the corral as I stepped briskly from the saddle so as not to be under the horse in case he had it in mind to roll next. That a surprised young horse should lose his balance and fall under the weight of his first rider made sense to me at the time; but what had happened under Medicine Bow Peak was 20 years and thousands of trail miles later. My knee felt better already, so I ordered another whisky-and-soda to bring my head along with it.
In the years between, Saab Star proved himself a good horse with a crazy streak he managed to control just in time—usually. In a tight place, his instinct had always been to hit the gas pedal—not, as a calmer horse will do, to slow down and pick his way ahead with care. Many times, this tendency resulted in near-disaster; almost as often, the realization that he was endangering his rider had brought him to his senses within seconds. With horses, the maxim about the devil you know being preferable to the devil you don’t has a special relevancy. In 20 years, Star had reared with me exactly once, and he had never bucked beyond the playful buttock-toss called a crowhop. Shying, habitual nervousness, occasional panic, and congenital hotness had been problems; but without these, I would not be nearly so careful and alert a rider as I am today, with honed reflexes and an enhanced sense of balance. Short of experiencing a vicious horse or a deliberate mankiller, with this one I’d been through much of what a regular horsebacker needs to know. For the last few years—even perhaps from the beginning—I’d been registering danger signs, without ever fully acknowledging them. Now, after the incident below Medicine Bow Peak, I had this choice: face up to the problem or eventually—maybe sooner, maybe later—end up dead along the trail, at the bottom of a talus slope, or alive still, pinned beneath a fallen horse with a crushed chest and the saddlehorn in my heart. It had happened to Mary Mead, who ran for governor of Wyoming a dozen years ago. I wondered if she had ever considered over a whisky or two before stepping up for the last time to her favorite horse—the problem one that killed her. Once, following a horsepack trip on which Linda had the chance to observe Saab Star at his very worst, she had remarked about how glad she was she that had sold him to me. Anyone else would have sent him to the glue factory years ago, Linda admitted.
I paid the barmaid, putting down a huge tip to cover all her good advice as well as the drinks, and drove out to West Laramie to feed. The horses recognized the truck from three houses away and ran to meet it at the gate, their heads and tails raised, nickering. The gelding’s four black hooves, admired by every farrier who ever shoed him, were planted strongly on the ground; his brown eyes looked clear and seeing, their gaze direct. He and the mare gamboled behind as I crossed the paddock to the hay rick and pitched a third of a bale down into the crib. Plenty of hay remained over from last winter: That, in addition to this year’s delivery, amounted to more than enough feed to last two horses until June, if need be. Only, what sense did feeding an idle head of stock all winter make? Of all the kinds of sentimentalist there are in the world, horse lovers are perhaps the worst.
On the way back to the truck, I met Wade Marlow going to empty the ash hod over his garden plot. “When’s the trader coming to pick up the black horse?” Wade asked. He had on denim coveralls and an old straw hat with a row of assorted songbird feathers stuck in the thin black ribbon around the base of the crown.
“I don’t know that yet,” I said. “He’s in Cheyenne with a load of horses this week, so his wife tells me. We’ll see him when we see him, I guess.”
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