Summer 2000, Volume 18.0
A Horse of a Different Color
Richard Dokey's novel The Hollow Man was recently published by Delta-West. He has several short story collections to his credit, most notably August Heat from Story Press, Chicago. His work appears regularly in literary journals throughout the country. Read other fiction by Richard Dokey in Weber: Vol. 21.1, and Vol. 24.1.
They carried him from the field and set him against a cottonwood tree. Sitting there, sweating, he looked across the stubbled ground to where the horse lay in the sunlight. The horse seemed asleep, its head turned out and away, its big, fur-red belly shining, cinched tight beneath the saddle. Larry went over and put a bullet into its brain.
He waited under the cottonwood tree while Larry and Bill figured what to do.
Then they came up. Bill wiped his forehead.
"One of us will ride for help," he said. "The other will stay here."
"There goes the fishing," he replied, trying to be easy.
"They keep a helicopter at the lodge," Bill said. "You'll be out in no time, Charlie."
"I'm sorry, you guys," he said. "What a screw-up."
"It could've been either of us," Larry said. "One of those things. The stream's not going anywhere. We'll be back next summer, Charlie."
He nodded, turning his face so that the two friends blocked the sun.
"Bad about the horse," he said. "They'll be upset about it."
"Nothing else to do," Larry said. He shrugged.
The horse was peaceful and strange in the hot light.
"Who's going?" he asked.
"I'll go," Larry said. "If I ride hard, I'll be there by early morning. You'll have lunch tomorrow at the lodge, Charlie boy."
"There's a whole week's supply of food and beer on the mule," Bill said. "Tonight we'll eat fat and get drunk."
"I'll buy all the beer for the next trip," he said, trying to move his weight. It felt as though he were pushing the earth away. Larry and Bill came close, stooped over.
"How is it, then, Chucker?" Larry asked.
"I can't tell," he said, his face wet.
"Where does it hurt?" Bill said.
"I don't know," he said. "It hurt like hell at first, but now I don't know where it hurts."
"You should lie down," Larry said.
"I don't want to lie down," he replied.
"Lie down, Charlie, for chrissake," said Bill.
"No," he said. "Get me a goddamn beer, will you? And some of those Spanish peanuts. I can't get drunk lying down."
Bill went to the mule. Larry straightened, looking beyond the horse to where the mountains rose, blue white in the sun.
"Next year," Larry said.
"Next year," he agreed, watching the horse. "Leave the carbine, will you? And plenty of cartridges."
Larry set the butt of the carbine down. He stared at his friend.
"Well, sure," he said. "I'll take the 44. Why do you want so many cartridges?"
He shrugged. "You never know," he said.
Larry gave him the carbine. He placed it across his legs, which stuck out through the brush pants, the shoes turned to either side. He tried to move his toes. They wouldn't move.
Bill came back with the beer. "Sorry, Chucker," he said. "It's warm."
He took the beer, hooked his finger in the cap and pulled. The beer foamed, then slid down the sides. He put the can to his lips.
Bill drew back the cellophane cap on the jar of nuts, poured a handful and passed the jar to Larry.
"Let's have it, then," Charlie said.
He tipped the jar and filled his mouth. He felt the thin filigree of paper that covered the nuts, the quick, burnt-sweet flavor as he crushed the nuts between his teeth. He took a swallow of beer and set his head back against the tree.
"That time on the Bighorn," he said. "When the boat hit that submerged stump."
"The front end went up and over, like a flapjack," Bill said.
"And I banged my head on the gunnel," Larry said, "and went down like a dead carp."
"I was shipping water in my damned waders," Bill said, "and flopping my arms. The current smacked me right into the bank. I didn't even see Larry."
"I reached down and felt his head," Charlie said. "I grabbed two handfuls of hair and pulled straight up. He came out like an old tire."
"And the current bouncing us along, not able to see a goddamn thing," Bill said.
"That's right, it was pitch black," Charlie said. "We stayed on the river until after dark and couldn't find the damned takeout. Lost all the rods."
"Sonofabitch," Bill said.
"Now what the hell made you think of that?" Larry asked.
"Peanuts," he replied.
"What do you mean, peanuts?" asked Bill.
"We were blown into the eddy," Charlie said. "It was the only thing that got out of the boat with us. Bobbing there against the bank. A half empty jar of Spanish peanuts."
"I'll be go to hell," Bill said. "That's right. That's all we had to eat until we got back to the damned motel."
Larry knelt. The sun, which his body had blocked, erupted. Charlie turned away.
"I can't remember a damned thing," Larry said. "I hit my head and that was it. The next thing I was in the wash against the bank and you guys were laughing, eating those damned Spanish nuts."
"We were all laughing," Bill said. "What a night."
Larry stared at him. "Come to think of it, you saved my damned life, Chucker. My frigging, goddamned life."
There was something above the hills far away, Charlie noticed, a trembling of light. He tried to focus on it, but when he did, it disappeared. But if he looked just a little to the side or let his vision blur, there it was, this faint, iridescent trembling of light.
The stream was on the other side of the hills. It cut a deep gorge through a canyon. That's why they needed horses. The stream was bouldery and slick. Big trout lived down behind the rocks and shelves. You went for them with sinking lines and weighted flies. When you hooked them, there was no guarantee. He had fallen often, stumbling behind their enraged charge.
Larry stood up. He walked to the mule for the cartridges. Bill was on his knees, hands flat against his legs.
"And that time on the Green," Charlie said. "When I went ahead and you slipped and twisted your knee. You crawled that mile back to the car and sat there for two hours because I was ahead of you and couldn't see what had happened."
"It was killing me," Bill said. "I honked the damned horn. You couldn't hear."
"Not a thing," he replied. "Best PMD hatch I've ever fished. I didn't look up for two hours."
Bill said nothing. They watched Larry coming back with the cartridges.
"So how is it now, Bill?"
"The knee? Fine. I kept the brace for a souvenir."
"You never know," Charlie said.
"Isn't that the truth?"
They concentrated upon Larry and his easy, bow-legged gait.
They stood above him.
"I'm going now," Larry said. "Ride like hell. Bill, you take care of him. Ol' Chucker. Stay easy, now, damn it. Listen, you should lie down. For chrissake, lie down, won't you, Charlie?"
"I don't want to lie down," he said, taking the box of shells. "You be easy too. No need for you to get hurt."
"Hey, I paid my dues on the Bighorn," Larry said.
"We both have," Bill said.
He studied his friends. "My turn now, I guess."
"Charmed life," said Bill.
"The two of us are always straining or tearing something," Larry said.
"We're even," Charlie said.
"From scratch next year, Chucker."
"Who's keeping score?" Bill laughed.
They waited a moment for something that did not come.
"Ol' Chucker. All right, then," Larry said. "I'm out of here."
He sprinted for the bay horse. They watched him gallop across the dry valley toward the low hills on the right. It was a long way. They watched until the horse disappeared in a faint, shimmering haze.
He set his head against the tree. It was very comfortable in the shade. There was no pain. He could sit there indefinitely. He was very tired.
"Charlie," Bill said. "You hungry? I could fire up the Coleman."
"I'm not hungry," he said.
"All right," Bill said. "Say, you want another beer?"
"No beer," he said. "Sit down, Bill."
"I'm getting tired of looking up at you."
"Sure. Sure," Bill said, squatting, crossing his legs, a hand on either knee.
"Talk about the streams," he said.
"The ones we fish."
"What for?" Bill said.
"Why not?" he said. "We have all day and night. Pass the time."
"What do you want me to say?"
"Say anything you want."
"Where shall I start?"
"I don't care, Bill."
"We talked about Montana."
"There are other places besides the Bighorn."
"Sure. Well," Bill said, rubbing his knees. "How about the Boulder at Big Timber?"
"Big Timber," he said, closing his eyes. "Virgil's Pool."
"And that caddis hatch that comes out every night below the water pipe."
"That's it," he said. "I landed a three pounder in there the last time we fished."
"Just drift that soft hackle below the surface, and they bang it on the swing."
"Virgil's Pool," he said. "Go on."
"Well, Paradise Valley."
"The Spring Creeks."
"Betty's Riffle. Remember those two pounders lined up next to the bank?"
"Got `em on sulphur emergers. Size twenty. We took turns."
He closed his eyes.
"Buffalo Ford on the Yellowstone in the park."
"Traffic jam," Bill said. "Guys everywhere."
"The only net I ever lost was there on the far side. Dropped it when I released that nineteen inch cutthroat."
"And then the storm came in and we sat on that dead log in the rain."
"And lightning everywhere, like crazy."
"What else?" Bill said. "Chile?"
"That's good," he said. "Get me another beer, will you?"
He kept his eyes closed. He didn't want Bill now. It was going too fast. There were so many things, but if you slowed each thing down, something came in that you hadn't thought about for a long time.
He wanted to remember all the rivers everywhere. He wanted to fish them straight through, carefully, and take all the time he had taken when he had fished them. He didn't want Bill to talk, and now he wished Bill had gone with Larry. He would have been all right alone. They could have stacked up the food and beer. With the carbine he would have been fine. That was the way he liked it anyway, fishing the streams. Then he wasn't distracted. He didn't have to talk. Talking always took him away and kept things from settling. When they settled, he could always bring them back and have them again. He didn't need anybody to remember anything about what he had done.
He thought of the names of as many places as he could before Bill got back. He would have to make a list of them so that he could play them back slowly. Bill and Larry would not be there. They were his friends, all right, his best friends, but they would not be there when he fished the streams. He would fish them the way they should be fished. An hour on one pool, if he needed to. Everything. All the feeling, the action, the color of the sky and what he had smelled. He closed his eyes.
He was afraid. He had never been afraid before if this was what it was to be afraid.
"Chucker," Bill said.
He opened his eyes. Bill knelt before him.
"Hey, you okay here?" Bill asked.
"Your face is as white as a virgin's ass. Come on, lie down. You're shivering."
"I don't want to lie down."
"I'll get you a blanket. It'll be colder in awhile. You should rest, Charlie."
"I'm resting. Forget it. Give me the beer."
"Well, at least let me make you more comfortable against this damned tree. Here, scrootch a little."
Bill put both hands under Charlie's arms and tried to lift.
Something that had been floating freely in the hemisphere of his back caught at the edge of his spine. Charlie screamed.
Bill flopped to his haunches.
"Jesus," he cried.
"For godssake, don't touch me."
Bill went to the mule. After a time everything floated again. Charlie put his head against the tree. He opened his eyes.
The horse lay in the sunlight. It was a beautiful horse, golden rust, the color of the cream-brown circles on the trout he had caught on the Motu River in New Zealand. The trout were very big and lay in the edges, behind rocks or in the shadow made by the high bank, where Frank, the guide, crawled through the brush, spotting. While he moved carefully into the water, working out line, Frank told him exactly where the beetle should land, and when it did, the fish rose easily and took with great confidence that there was nothing in the world that would harm it.
"Hey," Bill said, coming back, "how about that baetis hatch on the Bow River just north of Calgary? We nailed `em that year."
"I don't want to talk about the Bow," he said.
Bill was puzzled.
"The Crowsnest, then. Big, orange salmon flies. Slashing rises. I fell on my ass below the bridge. Remember?"
"Shut up," he said.
Bill looked hurt. "I don't get it."
"Keep it to yourself," he said.
"It's early," Bill said. "I thought you wanted to talk about fishing. What's the matter with you?"
He looked at his friend. Bill was a little fat. He was always inclined to be a little fat. He liked Bill. He liked Larry. The three of them fished everywhere together. They were fishing buddies. Trout bums. He tried to move the toes again. They wouldn't move.
"Forget it," he said. "How about a candy bar?"
"Hey, now you're talking. What do you want? Snickers? Milky Way? Baby Ruth?"
"Get me a Baby Ruth. Get me two Baby Ruths."
"All right," Bill grinned, skipping to the mule.
Charlie closed his eyes.
It was late afternoon when the vultures came. The first was a black spot that emerged from the trembling light above the far hills. The light had deepened perceptibly. He had watched it deepen, dropping and darkening with the falling sun. The hills were pressed down as well. There was the horse; then, when he looked up, the soft, tiny black hole, and then another and another.
They came on, dropping lower, until they formed a circling arch above the dead horse. They could see Bill moving in and out of the trees. With those eyes, they could see him leaning against the tree.
He had killed a vulture several summers before, driving out to fish a trout pond in the Mother Lode. The black, dirt-feathered bird had been perched above a rabbit in the middle of the road, its curved beak tearing flesh. He went straight for it. The vulture looked up and saw him coming, its visceral, pink face, flat and stupid. It didn't move. He came on, aiming the truck along the middle of the yellow line. Even, finally, almost at impact, the vulture did not move. He struck the vulture at full speed, meeting it just as it lifted its wings. The impact shattered the grillework in front of the radiator. But he killed it. He wanted to kill it.
He raised the carbine and sighted up against the milk white sky.
"Hey, Bill," he called, "bring the Coleman in here, will you?"
"Now you're talking," Bill said.
As Bill got things ready for dinner, he saw the great birds drop lower and lower, tilting their broad wings against the wind. He looked at the horse. It was a beautiful horse. All afternoon he had admired it. While riding, he hadn't realized how beautiful it was or had even thought about it. But he had studied it carefully, and now it was a very beautiful horse. It frightened him that it was so beautiful.
He raised the rifle and fired, but the vultures were out of range.
"What the hell?" Bill cried.
"Target practice," he said, reloading.
The vultures, lifting lazily, turned upon a current of air.
Bill got dinner ready. They ate quietly. After a time it was dark. The vultures were gone. He wondered, where do vultures go at night? But it didn't matter. There were other things.
Then it was truly dark. Bill unrolled his sleeping bag.
"Charlie," he said, "lie down now?"
"After awhile," he said. "Go to sleep."
Bill slid into the bag, drew up his knees and turned away.
"Ol Chucker," Bill said.
After a time he heard Bill breathing comfortably and evenly.
He could not move his legs. He felt the tree. It was a good, solid tree.
He looked across the open ground. Under the moonless night, the horse had turned black.