FICTION WINNER- Waltzing Cowboys

At the edge of the freshly ditched ground, Rhue stared. He thought maybe he'd died too, the colors all washed out in the bright noon light, and the silence so long and heavy it dragged his feet into a dirge of dust and dread. How close he felt to death himself. The longer he stared, the more comfortable it looked, that level dry earth with indentations for his hunched shoulders and his weary hips.

He was old, older than he'd ever expected to be. He had dark stains on the backs of his hands and a crooked place in his spine. His hair had turned, bleach blond to mousy gray. And then, like the victims of trauma, before he even realized it, it turned white as the new lambs he remembered from summers a hundred years ago.

It seemed a hundred years ago that he'd lifted the loose board in Vince's fence and whistled for his best friend. And now they'd buried Vince. A parade of old men, barely able to lift the coffin, had walked with Vince that one last time.

He and Vince and Marian, they'd covered some trails between them. When they met, forty years earlier, she'd been wild and so had he, even at thirty-six. During all their years of reining in canyon pintos and sleeping by campfires, Marian had more than kept up, not to compete with the two guys as much as that she didn't suffer fools.

With Vince gone, and Marian rocking away at the nursing home in a world of her own, suddenly Rhue felt his age. It was as if he awoke one morning to a revelation that screamed, "You're done here. Get gone." Marian her hands twisted in the cord of her bathrobe, the muscles gone slack with idleness didn't recognize him.

He wasn't sure which was worse, except that the gravesite had been comforting somehow, but Marian, sitting in the dark, humming odd phrases and mimicking voices in the hall, made him fume, white hot angry but helpless, the way a steer gets when his foreleg folds and he knows he's down. Rhue didn't go often to see her. The Marian he knew was flying bareback across the range.

The horses, though, were the same. It still fascinated him how clear their eyes were and the way their nostrils flared in anticipation. Most days before the sun came up he went to watch them in the field. He sat on the open tailgate until the ranch hands ambled up to the barn. He stayed until after sunset, until after the men went in to eat at the long warped table where he used to sit. From the corral he could smell the beans. He could taste them.

 

The screen door swung wide and new boots struck the wooden porch. Joey Clark's son stopped. He looked so young that the corral dust seemed to sit like powder on his five o'clock shadow. Hard to believe he was old enough to shave. The kid's name was Edward or Charles, something too formal for the hustler he looked, with his tight jeans and his t-shirt sleeve rolled over cigarettes to advertise the impunity of youth.

"D'you need a ride, Rhue?" The boy tapped one boot sideways against the post. "I'm headed to town."

Town. It was like a mantra for those boys with its neon lights and parking lots squeezed so full of metal and hormones and hope that the energy shot out like headlights into the night. Rhue had been there. He had no desire ever to go to town again. Even the memory of golden whiskey bleeding down his throat didn't tempt him.

"I could drop you somewhere," the boy repeated. He wasn't much more than a boy.

"I got my truck." Rhue wasn't bragging. There was nothing in town for him anymore.

"Fine. See you." The kid didn't say tomorrow. Was it disrespect or caution that kept him from that kind of promise?

Because Rhue felt the boy's eyes on his back suspicious, distrustful of an old man's reserve he waited at the fence until the truck rolled onto the state road. The horses waited too, but when Rhue's scent on the evening breeze reached them, one of them whinnied, the palomino mare.

"Just you and me, babe," Rhue said as he squeezed between the rails. The other horses pranced and prodded each other, showing off for him. Just beyond stroking distance, the mare, though, darted away. He patted the few who let him, the older ones who connected him with carrots and apples, the ones who'd already accepted the bridle and their own talent to carry human weight. The new foals, too wild for that, bucked and nipped each other's flanks. Where the fence widened, the gate stood open to the prairie. So, it was Saturday night. The ranch hands anticipated a late night and were letting the horses have their freedom too.

As Rhue walked past the open gate, the palomino sprinted past him. She spun around on a hillock of grass and lifted her feet daintily, setting them down in the exact same spaces, as if she were standing on tiptoe with excitement. When he realized he was holding his breath, he let it out in a long slow whistle. This was real, no graveside fantasy. The mare's nostrils blew warm air that misted in the cool evening. It floated back to him, a caress, as he picked his way through the tufted grass. When she saw him struggle at the incline, she slowed.

Once he made the crest, she took off running into the wind. He wished he were astride her, the smooth sureness carrying him forth. It was an old ache, buried deep inside. As his boots hit the hard shale of the rise, with the angle and the unforgiving ground, a sharp, piercing pain tweaked his hip joint. Forty years ago he never would've noticed it.

As he walked in the well of grass, the route to water worn by the herd, he remembered other evenings when he'd nestled into a mane and let hooves ring clear up to the sky, a prairie carillon of joy. Against the sinking sun, the mare's silhouette held fast. She wasn't ready to give up the unknown night or the secrets that hovered at the far side of the meadow, the possibilities of surprise that existed nowhere else in the daily routine of horse and cowboy. Rhue laughed. Neither was he.

Where a natural swale separated the bigger field from a second ridge, the pasture fell away to the river. It was a lazy river, not wide enough or deep enough to make any kind of mark on the world, but steady enough to be noticed and named.

When he lost sight of the mare, he panicked. He didn't want it to be over. He called out to her, naming her as he spoke. "Delilah," he called, hoping she'd recognize her new name and wait. He trod carefully on the uneven ground. Just beyond the ridge he could hear stamping hooves and marveled that they'd reached the water so effortlessly. Horses had an uncanny sense of rightness in their movements. If the sky darkened or the wind brought a strange smell, they hesitated, taking those signals seriously before they moved on.

Humans, fools all, had no such warning system. They bounded ever onward toward an unknown goal or fantasized glory, dragging their silly paraphernalia with them, getting slower and slower until they died, surrounded by things that had no lasting value and by people they didn't love. That's why he'd never gone back east, to the slow, dull pain of living with neighbors who knew your past. He liked to imagine his wife, Adriana, throwing the things he'd left behind in the landfill. More likely, knowing her, she'd kept them, hoping he'd return for them so she could berate him for their paucity. Surely she'd have worked hard to dispel any romantic hopes their son, Ford, might have harbored of being restored to his father someday.

Rhue had regrets, and his boy was one of them. But staying would've soured them all. In this world he was a traveler, not meant for staking out a place and guarding it. Who knew what he'd be in the next world?

Although Ford was a man now, the name conjured the boy Rhue would have taken on his shoulders and wheeled about, not to show off, but to share the exhilaration of wide spaces and endless motion. He didn't know much about his son, hadn't asked out of fairness. He'd been the one to leave, after all. But he would've liked a photograph, a small reminder of a reality that existed some distance from the world he'd come to know.

It had been a year, maybe more, since he'd walked this far from the ranch. Arthritic joints and the odd collection of rodeo fractures discouraged hikes. Mostly the wind blew from the west here, flowing down from the mountains and gathering speed to the Mississippi. A man could get lost in the weather.

Behind the setting sun, the sky flamed with sulfuric borders of blue, a sure sign that a storm was on its way. He figured they had an hour or two before the rain hit. His arthritis confirmed it.

When the mare caught his scent, she whinnied. Her head bobbed and tucked like a coquette with a new suitor. She knew he'd come for her.

"Hey," he said, patting his thighs lightly to let her know he was real.

She'd been ridden before, but you wouldn't know it from the way she hung back. Too proud to go easily, she'd thrown a few cowboys before they realized she only wanted to be treated like the lady she was. If they showed her the halter, let her take her time, she didn't complain. But she withheld something. In the way she refused to come for sugar, and in the slight hesitation before she let herself gallop, he guessed she didn't really like these humans who'd forced her to bend.

"If I were younger," he said, "I'd take you south, babe, past Texas there's a flat, greedy country without class to Mexico. River valleys that make you thirsty just thinking about them." He kept up a stream of sweet talk as he sidled down the rock face, his boots turned into the hillside for purchase. He willed her to be patient, to let this work. He wasn't sure he'd ever wanted anything more.

Besides Marian, there'd been women he'd talked to this way, low and dreamy, afraid to frighten them with his calloused hands and his appetite for change. Tiny women with rosy nipples and soft flesh, women who didn't know what they wanted. And tanned women with leather vests straining at the buttons and muscular thighs made for love. Women, whose memories of men colored them angry, but their bodies were still wanting and needy. Women he'd loved but never told them, and women whom no one could love for long.

A horse was different. They never forgot you. And once you'd seen a horse, you couldn't stop dreaming of her. That's the way it was for him with Delilah.

Close to the bottom, where the shale unraveled into loose gravel, his boot caught and he skidded, a foot or so, landing on his tailbone. At the abrupt motion, he watched her stiffen. His hip felt out of whack. Something had wedged itself in his chest. Back and forth he twisted his arm and leg to loosen the tightness. Slowly, as he kept talking and righted himself, she relaxed. Motionless, she alternately watched him and the other horses as if preserving her choice.

On the other embankment, the sun tanked behind the trees, streaking its last heat into the clearing in greedy golden fingers. With his handkerchief freed from his back pocket, he wiped his hands where they'd picked up gravel slivers from the fall. Suddenly he was uncomfortably hot.

"Are we friends yet?" he moved closer. "You're right, you're too young for me, but . . ." How to tell her there was value in experience, in being old enough to discard the tricks and deceptions of youth. How to let her know that he wanted what she wanted, one glorious last flight across the plain before the storm sent them home.

He inched forward, close enough that he could see her eyelashes. An arm's length between them. "The water in Mexico," he continued, "is like mountain water, cool and clear, bubbly. You wouldn't mind that. The sound and the rushing of it, exciting, eh?" He raised his hand slowly to waist height and held it out to her.

To keep his voice low and steady, he had to regulate his breathing. His chest ached from the forced control. Past Delilah, the other horses, growing anxious with the deepening dusk, churned about in the stream. These next few seconds were crucial. If she were bored, she'd step back and abandon him. If she leaned in to smell, he'd know she was serious too.

His extended hand grew heavier and heavier in the chilly air. On the far side the leaves rustled. He closed his eyes and sent her brainwaves of desire.

Just there on his palm, he felt the air first. Not nuzzling exactly, but exploring, wondering. This was an introduction, a kiss on the cheek at meeting. It meant nothing, committed no one, but it offered something more. He imagined her neck stretched out to his fingers, the dark lines of sweat on her coat from her run here, the stiff ears pricked to catch any change, any danger. Even the idea of opening his eyes risked the most miniscule sound, a shift that might send her frothing into the river. The sound of air, steamy in the dry dusk, flowed in and about the two of them, locked in concentration as fierce as any embrace.

His hand wavered where he held it open. When her lips bumped his palm, he steadied it quickly before she could flinch. Her warm breath poured into his hand, a gift, a bond.

"Delilah," he whispered, and she stepped forward.

 

Rhue woke up in the county hospital. A slender dark-skinned man in a white lab coat, with gold spectacles, stood by his bed. Rhue tried to move his legs but they were pinned under the taut cold sheet. Tubes ran from his chest and arm to machines by the wall.

"What happened?" he asked. The words tripped over themselves, barely making an echo above the air-conditioner. "What happened?" he tried again, pushing the sounds past his vocal cords with an effort that sent sharp spurts of pain along his ribs.

"You had a stroke. Not unexpected for someone in your condition."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you're too old to be riding wild horses."

He didn't remember riding the mare, but he hesitated to admit it. Memory loss might be something that kept him here longer.

"When can I leave?"

"We're not holding you. But," the doctor said, shaking his head in discouragement, "observation after a stroke is usually ten days." The words, as clipped and precise as a glockenspiel, were discordant high notes in the darkened room. "And the tests are due back tomorrow."

Rhue imagined a long hallway of rooms with bodies, motionless and barely breathing, lying in shallow hospital beds like corpses in a cemetery. With trembling hands he fumbled with the sheets to loosen his legs. He sat up, with less effort than he'd expected for all the equipment. The skin on his face was tender in several places. Somehow he'd scratched himself. His legs, numb and invisible under the pale green coverlet, remained dead weights.

"What's the matter with my legs?"

"Nothing with the right one except bruises. On the left, one fracture, near as we can tell, close to your ankle."

"If I don't wait, if I go now, what's the risk?"

"Ah, if I knew that, I'd be a fortune-teller, not a doctor."

 

After the cryptic little doctor left, Rhue dozed. He traveled again, the long dry highway leading away from Adriana and New York City. Eager to distance himself from his own sense of failure, for the first thousand miles the urge to disappear was so strong he'd been unable to eat or sleep. The cities he'd traveled through had been glistening and glittery, mad with colors and people, whirls of activity. He'd fled, further and further west, looking for a place with a single color and no voices.

Lying stiffly, he dreamed of canyons roiling with wild ponies like the Canadian coast where the tide turned in front of your eyes, churning the water into salt and spray. And he rode the train again across new countryside, forests as green as the underside of moss, the soil black with fertility and age like coal. Each farmhouse and ranch expectant, windows lit, flags raised stretched out across the country like parade watchers, cheering him onward to whatever was waiting for him, whatever it was that had made him leave everything he knew for nothing he could name, for the unknown, for the vacancy of open land and no neighbors. He had not understood why the urge to go had been so overwhelming. He'd been afraid to think about it.

 

From the narrow hospital closet he put on his blue jeans and his shirt. They smelled of the open prairie and Delilah. When he raked his fingers through the white hair, he felt the plates in his skull. It was possible that the reverse of birth was happening without his knowing, that in the process of aging, the plates shrunk like everything else and your brain was exposed to injury again. The locker held no hat. He must have lost it on the prairie.

The stump on the bottom of the cast made a hollow pounding sound on the linoleum like a hammer on a neighbor's roof. The elevator, the whoosh of the prairie breeze before the storm. Before the door shut he looked to see if they were following him. The hallway was deserted.

 

With the whirring of the taxi's wheels against the wet pavement fading, he looked around the apartment. Newspapers strewn on the tables, pots of caked dirt with brown stalks poking into the dry air, paper coffee cups on the counter, all set down with the abandon of a chess game gone hopeless. It was not unlike other places he'd lived. Except that he'd had better views.

On the phone with the train station clerk, he rummaged through the pile of mail. Without opening it, he chucked most of it into the trash. His leg was throbbing. Once he had the train schedule, he hobbled to the bathroom and took four aspirin without water.

Three large trash bags later, the room looked close to its pre-occupancy state. His duffle lay by the door. Taking the last beer from the refrigerator back to the bedroom, he lay down on the bare mattress, swung his bum leg up, and fell asleep.

 

Arriving early at the train station, with nothing else to do, he dozed on the bench, half in and half out of sleep. In his waking dreams, Delilah held steady. She let him lift himself to her back, took him streaming across the prairie night, racing against the sun. The vision of himself atop the palomino filled his mind and he breathed slowly to keep the image strong. By now the young stallion, he thought, would have chosen. The shy chestnut mare, perhaps impregnated with his foal already, would stay close, matching her step to his, following the grassy steppe to the river a half beat behind him. And from the ridge he and Delilah would watch them and remember their own courting days.

Getting old, what a grand deception life was. Experience counts, they tell you all your life. So you gather it all in, a thousand experiences, building and building, stronger and smarter, each event, each relationship making you a better worker, a better friend, a better lover. But without the power of youth, he could only ride the palomino in his dreams. And yet, here he was headed east to find the son he'd left behind, to make amends before he died.

Two days on the train to figure out what he'd say, two days to sort through the last forty and find something to convince them his last dream was worthwhile. All he had was the power of words. He'd had it all along, right from the beginning. He just hadn't known how important it was.

He should take a walk, find some lunch, but the idea of going back down that sidewalk felt wrong to him. He'd already left this place.

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