Becky A. Cox
© Copyright 1999 by
Becky A. Cox
The mist was high and cold up on the mountains, but neither horse nor rider seemed to notice. The pair walked on, oblivious to everything around them, except each other. The rider coughed, a harsh sound and the coughing spell racked his body. He was sure to die before the year was out. The horse merely flicked an ear at the sound. This was the kindest owner he had ever known and they treated each other with respect.
The cowboy stopped the horse on top of a hill overlooking the valley below. The man had grown up here, hundreds of years ago it seemed. What had happened to that life? He had run away when he was fifteen looking for something more. Now in his old age he wished he had stayed. If he had, maybe he would be healthy, married, have some children to look after him and farm the land. It was too late for ‘what-ifs’. It was too late for anything but the chance of dying here, in the place he loved best. A tear rolled down his leathery face. The horse snorted as if sensing the cowboy’s sad thoughts. The cowboy rode into the valley. He stopped only when they got all the way to the bottom of the valley. The cowboy dismounted and began to unsaddle the horse. First the cowboy lay his rifle down carefully on the wet ground. It didn’t matter to him now if the gun powder got wet, but the rifle had seen him through a lot of trouble. He always treated it carefully. He put his blanket roll and the canteen next. Then came the saddle and saddle blanket. As the kind old cowboy moved to take the bridle off the horse, the horse shook itself out. This brought a small smile to the tough old face.
The cowboy had no intentions of picketing the horse, because he had no intentions of waking up the next morning to ride on. Instead, the cowboy turned the horse loose, but it did not go far. It stayed by the cowboy, maybe not fully understanding that it was completely free. The cowboy did not shoo the horse away, he let his faithful friend stay. It was good to have company. The cowboy fixed his last meal - a pot of coffee, three pieces of bacon and two eggs. It had been quite a trick carrying them in his saddle bags and keeping them fresh, but he had done it. At least, he thought he had, if they were spoiled, although they didn’t appear to be, it wouldn’t matter anyway. He was dying. That thought was popping up in some of the strangest places. A few months ago when he had gone to local sawbones and was told that he would not live to see the end of the year, he had refused to believe it. He wasn’t that old, but he wasn’t young either. A month after that he had been rounding up cattle on a ranch. He was hit with the spasms of coughing and thought I’m-dying. That was it. That was the thought. He would wake up each morning and that would be the first thing on his mind. But it no longer bothered him. He had accepted that and had made his peace with God. For the past week his greatest concern was making it back to his birth-land. He would leave this world in the same place where he came into the world.
The horse whickered softly at the man. It came closer for a whiff of the cowboy’s dinner. When it saw that the cowboy had nothing he wanted, it didn’t move away, it just stood closely by, as if it too wanted the company. Finally the cowboy spoke to it.
“You’ve been a real good partner. You’ve always been there when I needed you. You have the heart of a warrior and you’re better than any man I’ve ever known. Shoulda been a poet, hey, son?” the cowboy said, chuckling at his words. The horse edged ever closer. The cowboy began to cough again and the horse flicked its ears and blew air out of its nose. When the cowboy got a hold on his coughing he said, “I didn’t wanna die like this. I always figgered I’d die an old man in my bed or in a fight or mebbe trampled by a herd. I wasted my life I guess. I was a fool.”
For a long while, neither creature moved, until the rain began. It came down hard and pure. The horse stood by his master and never turned a hair. The cowboy sat by his horse, knowing that he was drawing his last few breathes. Most cowboys dreaded the rainy weather. He liked it a lot, even if he did cough more in the dampness. Rain was pure and smelled sweet. It brought new life where his was running out. He looked up at the big mouse gray gelding, who stared back at him with patient eyes. Eyes that had seen everything life had to offer. The horse never stopped amazing the cowboy and he had ridden horses that hated the rain. This ugly gelding was the kindest creature the cowboy had ever seen.
The cowboy unrolled his blankets and lay down in them, not removing his boots. He placed his hat over his face and closed his eyes. He drifted to sleep. The ever patient horse stood by and watched the forest. The rain slacked off, back into mist. The horse watched as a doe and fawn came out of the woods. The doe smelled the air. The horse whoofed loudly and frightened the two animals away. He whinnied softly after them.
The cowboy woke up much later and saw that the rain and mist had stopped. The clouds had parted and now the stars were shinning more brightly than he had ever seen them. The moon was a huge luminescent eye in the sky. The horse looked over at his master.
“You still lookin’ after my sorry hide, old son?” the cowboy asked. The horse blinked at him and sighed. The cowboy placed his weather-beaten hat back over his face and drew his last breath. The clouds came together and it rained again. Had the cowboy really been a poet and if he had not been dead, he would have said the earth was crying for the poor, lost soul of a cowboy.
The horse walked over to the cowboy and nudged the hat off the man’s face. He whinnied softly at the man. This man, the only human being ever kind to him, was gone.
The horse stood by the dead cowboy until the clouds parted again and the morning sun came up. He nudged the cowboy, as if to say, Wake up, it’s a new day and we have a lot of traveling to do! The cowboy did not get up and the horse walked away from the body. His old, gentle eyes saw that he really was alone and there would be no more traveling, not with this man, at least. He whuffed and walked back to his master.
The morning sun became hot and the horse began to graze. He was thinking of going to get a drink from a creek he could hear. He glanced back at the cowboy, afraid he would get scolded if he left. Then he heard the cowboy say, Go on, git outta here. I’m okay and you don’t need to look after me anymore. You’re free, old son.
He had not seen
the cowboy say these things. He understood these words though and he
whinnied once, then trotted off to find his stream. He knew he was
free, that he and the cowboy would never ride together against, lest
it be in death. Instead, he remained in the valley alone, lonely,
grazing, and drinking, awaiting the day he and his master would ride
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)