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Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows about Horses by Bret Anthony Johnston


His daughter’s first horse came from a travelling carnival where children rode him in miserable clockwise circles. He was swaybacked with a patchy coat and split hooves, but Tammy fell for him on the spot and Atlee made a cash deal with the carnie. A lifetime ago, just outside Robstown, Texas. Atlee managed the stables west of town; Laurel, his wife, taught lessons there. He hadn’t brought the trailer – buying a pony hadn’t been on his plate that day – so he drove home slowly, holding the reins through the window, the horse trotting beside the truck. Tammy sat on his back singing made up songs about cowgirls. She named him Buttons. No telling how long he’d been ridden in circles at the carnival. For the rest of his life, Buttons never once turned left.

A year later, days after Hurricane Celia hit and everyone was digging through soggy debris for ruined photo albums and missing jewellery, an old woman from Corpus called Atlee about a chestnut mare. It wasn’t hers. She’d found the horse standing in her fenced backyard, soaked to the bone and spooked. “I think the storm dropped her here,” she said.

He drove out and threw a rope not around the mare’s neck but her hoof, then coaxed her into the trailer with quiet talk and sugar beet. He ran an ad in the paper, hung signs in the feed stores, called every rancher he knew. He named her Celia and she turned out to be as fine a horse as he’d ever seen, smart and sure-footed. No one ever claimed the old girl. Not something he’d been able to parse.

The most beautiful thing he’d ever seen were the wild horses in Arizona. He’d gone to deliver Celia to a couple in Phoenix; they needed a companion horse for an old blue roan that was cribbing and stall-walking. Atlee was going to miss her and that must have been evident because after supper, a ranch hand said he knew something that would cheer him up and they drove out to the Salt River. Nobody knew how long the herds would survive. The state considered them stray livestock and staged round-ups without notice or due process. But Atlee saw a hundred horses that first evening. He glassed the mesa with the ranch hand’s binoculars and found the animals in the orange dust. They pawed the ground and threw their heads. They clacked their teeth and nipped each other, bucked and gave playful chase. Wind lifted their manes and tails. They bit at each other’s knees and reared up and sniffed the air. When one of the stallions caught a scent, maybe of Atlee himself or the truck or the ranch hand’s cigar, they broke into a run like nothing he’d ever witnessed. The herd spread and gathered, spread and gathered, one tremulous and far-ranging body, until they came together in a gorgeous line, a meridian dividing before and after.

*

Atlee had read of US Cavalry riders being thrown when their horses saw herds of buffalo. Those horses had originally been used for hunting – they’d been taken from the plains Indians – and the whole of their lives had been spent bolting and surrounding animals so the hunters could spear them down. They couldn’t unlearn it, so when they saw buffalo, the horses exploded into runs that dumped uninitiated riders. Atlee liked the image of those men on their asses in the dirt, but he hated to think of the horses waiting in vain for the buffalo to fall.

“Or was it right that he wouldn’t turn?” Tammy said, fanning herself with an outdated magazine. They sat on a hot porch, rocking in chairs, hoping for a breeze. His daughter drove out to Seaside Acres every couple of weeks. Atlee was wearing his good denim shirt, a leather bolo tie, boots he’d shined this morning or last night or last week or not at all. He was 80 years old and his memory was mostly leaked out. He couldn’t remember how they’d gotten on the subject of Buttons. She said, “I thought he didn’t like to go right because he’d been going that way all those years.”

“Right was the only way he went. They have memories like elephants,” he said. “He just remembered turning the one way.”

“He was a mean little shit,” she said. “That’s what I remember. His hobby was clotheslining me with low branches. He liked that crippled boy more.”

“When this ends, sell the carousel horse to a collector if you don’t want it.”

“You say that every visit,” she said.

“Let people fight over him at an auction.”

“And you didn’t pay that man no money for Buttons,” she said. “That’s just the story we gave mama. You told him the horse was hurting, and you were confiscating it. You said you could do it one of two ways, but both ended with us taking him home.”

Atlee tensed. He always did when Tammy mentioned her mother.

“That was the word you used, ‘confiscating,’” she said. “I don’t think I’d heard it before, though I’ve heard it a few times since.”

“I know what I said,” he lied.

They rocked a while longer on the porch, then Atlee began the considerable work of standing up. Had the chore not required such concentration, it would have put him in the mind of the awkward struggles of a newborn colt, a weak and scared animal, blinking and frightened, feeling his legs for the first time.

A lost horse can follow its own tracks home.

His wife had grown up roping and cutting cattle on a ranch, and the first time he saw her ride – the day Laurel applied to teach lessons at the stables – he knew he was cooked. When she let the reins out and dug her boot heels into her horse’s sides, they were nothing but run. “Well, hell,” he thought, leaning on the corral gate, watching her. Atlee was 26; Laurel was 22.

“Riding agrees with you,” he said as she unsaddled her mare.

“I can teach all of it – western, English, dressage.”

“I don’t doubt it. You sit a horse well. You’ve got a soft touch,” he said. “When can you start?”

“Really?”

“Yes, ma’am. We’ve needed a riding teacher for a while.”

“No,” she said, meeting his eyes. “You really think I’ve got a soft touch?”

A year later, they had Tammy.

He camped on the banks of the Salt River for two more nights. He ate canned beans from the blade of his pocketknife, drank water from a jug he filled in the river. The wild horses hadn’t returned. It seemed a miracle that he’d seen them at all. It seemed a mirage.

Atlee fished and hooked nothing. He sat on the tailgate for hours, swinging and kicking his legs, the weight of his feet in his boots making him feel somehow like a boy. Red-tail hawks circled. Turkey vultures. A bull snake swept across a trail, vanished into the brush. At dusk on the second night, Atlee caught a horned toad and played with him for a bit before letting him skitter away. The clouds were coiled in stars like barbed wire.

The next morning, his last morning there, horses stood on both sides of the Salt River. Atlee had been filling his jug, thankfully downwind, and he stepped behind a stand of persimmon to watch. They were crossing from one bank to the other, a few at a time. They forded the river effortlessly. They enjoyed the water. Once they climbed out, they shook off and played frisky games, whinnying. He counted 20 of them. Thirty. Forty. Atlee’s heart seemed too big for his chest.

A horse’s heart weighs ten pounds.

His own first horse had been a roan quarter horse, his coat so deeply red he seemed to sweat wine. General Lee. His daddy had gotten him in a swap with a farmer. Atlee rode him bareback until he picked enough cotton and baled enough hay to buy a floppy saddle from the Mexicans out by the tannery. General loved to eat dandelions and bark from mesquite trees. Atlee made up a specific whistle, a long high note with two loops in the middle, and when General heard the sound on the wind, he came cantering home. The only time he’d thrown Atlee was when they’d come across a cottonmouth, a thick snake whose head Atlee pinned with a stick and bashed with a rock. When General got colic, Atlee stayed in his stall, drinking bitter coffee from his daddy’s thermos. A few times, he claimed General was sick just to spend the night with him. He woke to the horse nuzzling his stomach with his whiskered nose.

He preferred his books and photographs with horses, his movies without. He liked reading about breeds and lore. About the roles they’d played in winning ancient wars and clearing the land that would become the country. About how Plato believed the soul was a chariot pulled by two winged horses, one tame and one wild. With pictures, he liked to see one horse resting its head on another’s back. He liked when they looked into the camera with their ears up. (A horse’s ears never lie.) Pictures of running horses and horses in snow and horses lowering their necks to drink clear water and – oh, hell, the truth was he liked any picture with a healthy horse in it.

What bothered him about movies was what transpired off camera. How they trained horses to collapse onto their shoulders from full runs, to rear up and flip onto their backs. When a horse started running on the screen, Atlee shut his eyes or pretended to pick something off his jeans until the scene changed. He couldn’t bear to watch them fall. Once you’ve seen a horse break its leg, once you’ve heard that animal scream, it never leaves you.

The carousel horse had been a gift to Laurel. Not from Atlee, but one of her students, the daughter of two lawyers. The girl could ride and her parents took her around the world to compete; there was some hope for the Olympics. They bought the carousel horse at an antique market in France, shipped it to Texas. Basswood, faded eggshell body, royal blue and gold and crimson details. It had been on an outside row of the carousel, arrested mid-jump, six feet long. It had a horse-hair tail, an elaborately carved saddle and bejewelled bridle, bared teeth and wild eyes and braided mane. The story was that the Nazis were coming through and setting fire to everything, so if carousel owners had time, they dug holes and buried the horses. Atlee didn’t know if it was true, but he knew the Germans had killed as many real horses as they could – he’d suffered through Miracle of the White Stallions – so it seemed possible. And Laurel loved the statue. Atlee fashioned it to the living room wall and she gazed on it with awe. She was already sick by then.

On that last morning at the Salt River, the colt approached the water countless times. He stepped in ankle deep, then backed out or spun and hopped up the bank like a goat. He lost his place in the queue, gathered his nerve, retreated. His body was sheened with moisture. When the colt finally ventured in, it was from a running start, the way Tammy barrelled off a diving board. The splash was smaller than Atlee anticipated, but big enough to annoy the older horses. The colt laboured to keep his head above the current. Where the others were tall enough to walk on the riverbed, he struggled to swim. Atlee wished he had a camera. He wondered how many other people had seen such a sight. He wanted Laurel there, to bear witness with him, to feel what he did: that his whole life had led to this moment, had always been leading here.

Safety matters more to them than food. More than water. More than anything. Lions used to stalk them in the desert. Cavemen chased herds off cliffs for meat. We’re predators and they’re prey, his daddy said. Understand this and you understand them: deep down in their blood, they’re still afraid.

Once, at Seaside Acres, his favourite nurse asked what scared horses the most.

“The boy’s doing a book report,” Esther said.

“Just two things,” Atlee said. “Things that move and things that don’t.”

One afternoon at the end of a drought year, Atlee went to the pasture fence and let fly with his double-loop whistle for General. Nothing. He did it again louder. Then again. Heat flared behind his knees and in his temples, and yet he was instantly so cold that his body shook. Another cottonmouth, he thought. Or General was snared in the barbed wire fence, bleeding while flies landed on his torn flesh. Atlee rushed to the tack room. He was gathering a rope and halter, trying to figure what else he might need, when his father told him not to bother. Atlee barely heard him. He filled a jug with sweet oats to shake.

“I sold him,” his daddy said.

Atlee stood in the tack room, holding the jug and rope.

“We’re belly-up, boy. It was either sell him to buy food or eat horse for a month. I wagered which one you’d cotton to.”

There must have been dirt on Atlee’s face. He tasted it when the wet ran into his mouth.

*

Another time, Tammy arranged for a therapy horse to visit Seaside on Atlee’s birthday. Well, a pony. He was a pinto with a silly red bow on his tail that Atlee hated. The pony had trouble with the waxed tile floors, so his handler took him out to the trailer and wrapped duct tape on his hooves. It helped. When nobody was watching, Atlee untied the sad bow and slipped the ribbon into his pocket. Goddamn did that horse smell fine.

The crippled boy had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Fluid had to be drawn from his knees every other day. He was six or seven, and he’d gone stretches without walking. His parents had called Atlee on the suggestion of old Doc McKemie; they needed something for their boy to do that wouldn’t tax his knees. Tammy had outgrown Buttons by then, had all but left horses completely behind for baton twirling and talking on the phone, so Atlee told the crippled boy’s parents to bring him on out. They wore sandals to the stables. None of them knew not to pass behind horses or to feed them sugar cubes from a flattened palm. But when Atlee hoisted the crippled boy onto Buttons’ back, his face lit up like Christmas. And Buttons did behave better than he ever had for Tammy. He didn’t try to shake the boy off or make a beeline for a low-hanging branch or twist to bite his stirruped foot. Atlee considered telling the parents about Button’s orneriness, but he knew it would cost the boy years of rare joy, and he also knew that Buttons would never toss him. The crippled boy’s mother took pictures, and weeks later, Atlee received one in the mail. A sun-spotted photo of the boy holding the saddlehorn with both hands and an inscription on the back that read, “Maybe mamas should let their babies grow up to be cowboys!”

After the chemo failed, then the radiation, Laurel decided against further treatment; her eyes still sharp then. Atlee argued, but she won like always. She was 50. She lost weight and mobility and much of her sight, forgot her name and how to eat and forgot she was dying, and days came when she did not wake. When she did, she asked him to drive her to the stables. She wept and ranted when he explained he couldn’t, so he started lying. He said they’d just gotten back, said they’d gone for a long and peaceful ride in open country, said she’d let out the reins and kicked into her horse and they were nothing but run. She liked that. She went back to sleep smiling.

Want a stable relationship? Get a horse. That was on one of Laurel’s T-shirts.

He didn’t see the colt go under. When he couldn’t find him with the binoculars, he thought he’d already made it across the river. But then there was a thrashing in the water, as if it had started to boil in the middle where the trench was most deeply cut. The other horses were walleyed, frantic, pushing more quickly toward the far bank, like they were being chased. The colt’s head breached, then dropped under again. Flared nostrils. Wild, roving eyes. Atlee was on his feet. He was out from behind the trees. In the water. Up to his waist. The horses on the far bank saw him and bolted. He went deeper. He was three hundred yards away, the river heavier and rougher than he’d ever imagined. That he couldn’t make it in time shattered him as much as the knowledge, sudden and desperate, that even if he could, he’d be no help.

To bond with a horse, close him in a corral and chase him away. They’re terrified of exile, of being cut from the herd, so before long, he’ll come up with ways to approach you. For Atlee, the hardest part was acting uninterested when the horse sought him out. That nickering always sounded like a soft apology, always felt like the luckiest of gifts.

Laurel used to say old Doc McKemie looked like Willie Nelson. They called him the red-headed stranger. After she was gone, after the stables had been sold and paved over for a Home Depot, after Atlee started getting lost in restaurants, Tammy drove him to the doctor’s office to talk assisted living. Atlee said, “Turn me out to pasture. I’m long ready.” His daughter and the red-headed stranger exchanged a look. They’d expected him to balk. Everyone sat silently for a while. Don’t cross him, don’t boss him, he’s wild in his sorrow, riding and hiding his pain.

On Sable Island, far off the coast of Nova Scotia, wild horses survive by eating nothing but beach grass. The island is a narrow crescent, long and harbourless, inhabited only by seafowl and the horses. There are hundreds of them. Legend claims they’re descended from ancestors that swam ashore after shipwrecks, but really the original horses were abandoned by a Boston clergyman after the Revolution. (Something else Atlee had never been able to parse.) They are shaggy-coated bays and palominos, hardly taller than ponies; over the centuries, their legs have shortened to help with climbing the mucky dunes. Different herds stake claim to different parts of the island. On the eastern coast, fresh water is so scarce that they have to dig holes with their hooves to find springs bubbling beneath the sand. Atlee had dreamed of the island, but of course he’d never visited it. He’d never once boarded a plane.

A band of Mexican soldiers riding north to the Alamo were caught unawares by a blizzard. It stranded them in the mountains. Their horses’ noses kept freezing over, so the soldiers had to knock ice from their nostrils. They used the butts of their rifles. Every time Atlee read about it, he heard a thin and beautiful cracking. He saw plumes of warm desperate breath issuing like signals.

*

After Tammy left Seaside Acres on that hot afternoon when they talked about Buttons, Atlee was sapped, sullen. He tried to piece the conversation back together, tried to remember if they’d planned a next visit. He skipped supper and Esther came to check on him.

“Looks like someone’s got a heart as heavy as a bucket of horseshoes,” she said.

He couldn’t think of the right words, so he pretended to pick at something on his jeans.

Esther ran her fingers over the carousel horse’s carved bridle. Some of Atlee’s clothes were draped over it; his bolo tie hung from a wooden ear.

“The boy keeps asking for a pony, and I say, no sir,” Esther said. “I say, when I know half of what Atlee Rouse knows about horses, we’ll talk. Until then, the only riding he’s doing is the bicycling kind.”

Atlee wanted to rest, wanted to be left alone. His thoughts kept floating out of reach, twigs on a fast-moving stream. He said, “Horses were my wife.”

“What’s that, doll?” she said. “Horses were your life?”

“Yes,” he said, “that too.”

A horse that loved tossing an orange traffic cone around his stall. A horse that wouldn’t take the bit unless you rubbed honey on it. A horse afraid of anyone wearing a black hat. A horse that would steal your wallet without you feeling it. Laurel’s horse.

After a long separation, two horses will put their nostrils side by side and inhale each other’s breath; it’s their handshake, their embrace, their welcome home. A horse can’t see its own nose, but grazing with its head down, it can see the full pasture. Each eye sees a different view, so they’re always watching two things at once. To lead a horse out of a burning barn, cover its head with a blanket. It keeps them from panicking. Atlee never had to do this. Thank God above.

Atlee had been too fixed on the colt to notice the stallion. It was in the river suddenly – astoundingly, unbelievably – dunking his head where the colt had gone under. If Atlee’s heart had felt too large earlier, now everything about him was too small, too feeble, too inconsequential. There seemed such violence in how the horse dove down, such rage, slamming his head into the water. Atlee heard the thuds. When the stallion came up with his teeth clamped on the colt’s mane, Atlee didn’t immediately understand what he was seeing. The colt looked diminished, like it had shrivelled. Like it had drowned. But he hadn’t.

The stallion had him halfway between his ears and withers, and he walked him to the opposite shore, not letting go until the colt stood on wobbly legs. The stallion climbed ahead as the colt staggered up the bank. Other horses were still crossing the river and they passed him too, but eventually he followed their tracks and was enveloped by the herd.

Atlee stood trembling in the river until the rest had crossed. Then he went back to his truck and wrung out his clothes as best he could. He drove the blacktop highway until he found a filling station with a payphone. He called Laurel collect. “What’d you do with my tightwad husband?” she joked, but he was already talking. He couldn’t wait. He told her about the ranch hand and the first night on the mesa, about the herd’s thunderous run, how it reminded him of an infinite flag unfurling, a wave breaking toward the shore, a ribbon of red smoke unspooling and being pulled inexorably away. He told her how he watched them through the lenses, then lowered the binoculars and closed his eyes and listened to them disappear into the fading out light, the rumble of their hooves receding like a passing storm. He told her about the bull snake and the horny toad and the colt and the stallion.

“I’ve missed you, too,” she said, sweetly, when he was done.

“We’ll come back and see them,” he said. “We’ll visit Celia and bring Tammy.”

“You can surprise her when you get home. She’ll like hearing how excited you get.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said.

But when he got home the stables needed mucking out and one of the quarter horses had colic and part of the pasture fence went down. Then came Laurel’s first doctor’s appointment, then all of them that followed, then there was too much to talk about and decide, and he never got around to telling his daughter about Salt River. Sometimes, especially after Laurel had forgotten she’d ever heard it, he repeated some of it to her, but never to anyone else. For the rest of his days, it was just theirs – his and hers and the horses. Then she was gone, and the horses surely were, too, so then it was his and his alone. A passing moment, scattering and shapeless, a story that wasn’t a story at all, just something stuck in his head about horses, a memory without beginning or middle or end.