We were heading home. A haze of dust trailed his Chevy as it rumbled down the dirt road. I looked at the two empty feeding buckets sitting at my feet and said, “Man, those horses sure do love oats, don’t they?” He smiled back at me.
“Yep, they sure do.”
I glanced in the rearview mirror—the horses’ necks were craned to the ground, grazing. Tails swishing in the air, sweat-stained backs now free of saddles and cinches. We turned a corner and they disappeared. I didn’t know it then, but it was one of our last rides together. Had I known, would home have beckoned so winsomely? Home, with its promise of cool water and clean hands. I cherished the ride, yes, but it felt so good to slide those musty riding gloves off my fingers—to run my hands under flowing water and scrub the sweat off my brow and the dirt from my palms. I loved him for his white hair and long silences and the peace I felt when I rode next to him. But I loved home, with its coolness and cleanness, too. If only I didn’t have to say goodbye to one to have the other.
Earlier that morning, the reins jingled softly in my hands as we rode along a split-rail fence. A velvet breeze rustled the meadow. Prairie grass rose and fell, rose and fell as eight hooves rose and fell, rose and fell. We would talk occasionally, but never for very long. Cowboys don’t talk much, but that wasn’t the reason why. I didn’t know the reason why.
A forest laid at the edge of the meadow, a cocoon of life and stillness. Thousands of delicate aspen leaves blocked the heat of the summer solstice, casting a tapestry of speckled shadows in every direction. Tall grass brushed against my stirrups with a ssshhhhh.
Why aren’t we talking? I wondered. I was bursting with questions for him, about him. Questions about horses, the wars, atomic bombs, his childhood, his wife, his daughter (my mother). It was the longest day of the year and I had him to myself. Even so, I fidgeted in my saddle, worried that time would run out on my questions.
Didn’t he know what a mystery he was? I had strewn together pieces from stories here, pictures there, a medal on the wall. But I was impatient. It was the summer I turned fourteen and I desperately wanted to learn not only about him, but about myself. His blood was my blood–there were answers there. But he was not the type of man you pushed for answers.
He was quiet and majestic, with a countenance both hard and soft. Warm grey eyes tempered the weathered lines running up, down, sideways on his face. I always sensed his mind was burdened with memories of war. Of questioning, maybe? Of where was God in the Second World War? In Korea? But the mountains live and breathe of God. And horses don’t care who you are, or what you did, or why things are the way they are or why you don’t talk more.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the branches above.
Two dark eyes followed our movements. An owl. I held my breath instinctively as we trespassed through its little world. That simple, beautiful world that feels so natural and yet so foreign at times. The forest was a cathedral.
Maybe that was the reason why we weren’t talking.
I bet his horses remember him. I bet they miss seeing him drive up to the pasture in his old Chevy with two big buckets of oats in the back.
But that’s okay. Because he’s home now. And he’s scrubbed the sweat off his brow and the dirt from his palms and is relishing the memory of a good, good ride.
Ten years have passed. It was everything to me then; it is everything to me now. So beautiful a memory that I sometimes wonder whether it really happened.
The meadow, the forest, the owl: they were before it all. Before he got sick. Before he got better. Before he got sick again. Before he made one final trip to Big Thompson Canyon and this rugged cowboy—this atomic scientist, this Marine, this man who was so strong and yet so meek—stood in the pasture and wept softly as he said goodbye to his horses.