The Moon-Eyed Stud
by Justin Stanchfield
John Garret had never met the horse he couldn't break.
Until the last one.
The staircase creaked so loudly it sounded like someone dogged his footsteps. He
crossed the Antler's lobby then stopped to button his long black coat. They had
buried him in his suit, the white shirt with the scratchy collar and the long brown
pants. But, they hadn't nailed him in the box with his new boots, just the floppy
old pair he wore the day he died. Some might call it a tribute, a way to let the
devil know he'd died with his spurs on. More likely somebody at the K-Bar
decided it was a waste to plant a man with a pair of fifty dollar boots on his heels.
He reached for the door.
"Ever think Hell would be like this?"
Garret tried to ignore the voice from the other side of the room, but Shorty
O'Dowd wasn't having it. He stepped out from behind the hardwood bar with the
fancy brass rail and shuffled across the floor. "I was expecting a lot worse. How
about you, John? What did you expect Hell to be like?"
"Never gave it much thought one way or the other." Morning sunlight slanted
through the windows, and for just a moment even the Antler seemed cheerful and
warm. He stood in the sunbeam and rolled his left shoulder to work the stiffness
from it. Seemed the longer he stayed here, the harder it got to rouse out.
"You want breakfast?" Shorty asked.
"Don't see much sense in it."
"Reckon you're right. Ain't like a man gets hungry down here, is it?"
"Nope." Garret knew damn well it wasn't breakfast Shorty wanted. Soon as he
left, O'Dowd would pull out his bottle, the one that never seemed to run dry, and
try to get stinking drunk. He might as well throw down shots of horse piss.
Whiskey, like food, was something a body could do without once they shoveled
dirt over you. He buttoned the last hole on his coat and stepped outside.
Wind grabbed his coat tails as Garret cinched his hat down. His boots crunched
against the frozen dirt as he neared the abandoned livery stable. Like every other
building in town it was grayed, the paint peeling off the false front. Rusty hinges
groaned as the barn doors swung open. He stepped inside and pulled out his
tobacco. Shorty had his vices, and he had his own. Fingers aching with cold, he
twisted a smoke then struck a match, the flame cupped so close it singed his long
gray mustache. The wondrous scent of Prince Albert mingled with the musk of
old horse crap and dry hay. He took a long drag.
Smoke rolled down his throat and vanished as if it had never been. No pleasant
kick, no mellow taste lingering after he exhaled. Nothing to prove he smoked at
all except for the hot cherry burning his thumb and finger. Disgusted, Garret
snuffed the cigarette then headed round back.
A dozen houses made up the town, silent as death. Nobody in town but him and
Shorty. Nobody in a thousand miles for all he knew. He stepped toward the old
corral and smiled coldly. Not another soul alive except for the moon-eyed stud
dancing circles inside the pen.
"Good morning, you hateful son of a bitch." Garret's voice was loud and cheerful.
"I hope you hurt as much as I do."
The rangy palomino threw its head, ears flicked forward, nostrils flared as he
caught Garret's scent. He stood sixteen hands if he was an inch, with high withers
and white front feet made for striking. A tangled yellow mane whipped around his
bald face. But it was his eyes that grabbed. Black on the right, pale-blue on the
left, rimmed red and split up the middle. A billy-goat's eye, or a snake's, ice cold
and vengeful. The stud dipped his head but never let Garret out of his sight.
"Good to see dying ain't changed you a lick."
One moment he and the stud had been hogging around the pen at the K-Bar, the
next he was here. He remembered hanging over the saddle, desperate not to get
thrown, when the crazy bastard kicked high. Up and over they went, ground and
sky changing places as the animal fell. Garret tried to get clear, but his foot
tangled in the stirrup. Crushing pain took him as the stud lit on top of him. But
the horse had paid for it too, his back broken in the fall. Last thing Garret heard
before waking up here was the gunshot as the boys put the horse down.
His saddle lay on the top rail. A bridle with a rawhide hackamore hung off the
horn. Garret knew every scuff on the old saddle, the curve of the high cantle as
familiar as snow on a winter's day. An oiled riata, coiled tight, was tied to the
right pommel. The rope mocked him, daring him to throw a loop.
"Think we should have another go at it, old son?"
The horse spun away. Bits of dirt and frozen manure clattered against the rails as.
the stud raced around the pen, defiant as the day he died. Garret's shoulder ached
as started to untie the riata, his left arm all but worthless. He let the coils drop
against the fender, loud as a judge's gavel. Shaking as much from shame as the
icy wind, John Garret wandered back to the Antler.
* * *
"Morning, John." Shorty leaned on the bar and scratched his strawberry nose.
"Ever think Hell would be like this?"
"You asked me that yesterday, Shorty."
"You've asked me the same damn question every morning since I got here."
"Oh." Shorty flushed. "Well, I was just trying to be sociable." The squat man
shuffled into the kitchen. Garret heard him stuff kindling into the cookstove until
flames whuffed inside the fire-box. He almost felt ashamed at having hurt
Shorty's feelings. Anxious to be away, he buttoned his coat and stepped outside.
The wind was colder today, raw as an open sore. He stuffed his hands in his
pockets and hurried toward the coral. The moon-eyed stud watched him, head
high. Garret watched the horse too. Something in the way the animal moved, as if
he danced a paper's width above the ground, held his eye. People used to say he
was fearless when it came to horses, but they were wrong. He was afraid of every
bronc he'd thrown a saddle on. No, he decided, afraid wasn't the right word.
Respectful. A horse had too many ways to hurt a man if he let them, but he'd
never been around an animal so packed full of hate as this one. Without quite
knowing why, Garret understood he had to break him or he'd wind up as empty
and craving as Shorty. He tested his left shoulder. It hurt, but not so much to keep
him from trying.
"All right, old son." Garret untied the riata, made a loop and rolled the twists out.
The rope felt like an extension of his arm, as if he'd been born to throw it. He
stepped inside, twirling it slow and easy above his head. "Let's you and me try
The stud snorted, ice-white breath shooting out his nostrils as Garret eased toward
the snub post set in the center of the pen. Around and around, the rope spun
faster. He gauged the throw, his wrist flicking in time with the animal's lope. On
the next pass, he let fly. The loop hung in the air, and then, snake fast, settled over
the stud's head. Garret put his back to the snub-post and took up the slack.
The stud reared as Garret dallied around the post. Without warning, the animal
turned and ran down the rope. Garret dodged, but stumbled to the ground.
Desperate to avoid the knife-sharp hooves, he rolled against the bottom rail.
Behind him, the stud lunged against the maddening noose as the coils tightened
around the post. Another hard yank and the leather strands broke. Free again, the
stud leapt at the top rail. Wood splintered under his weight as the top two poles
sagged, then snapped. The broken riata still around his neck, he bolted across the
narrow creek south of town into the desert beyond.
* * *
The cookstove crackled, so hot it seemed ready to melt if Shorty stuffed one more
stick inside. The little man drug up a spindly green chair and set it next to his
rocker. Garret eased into the chair while Shorty rounded up his bottle and two
glasses. He poured two fingers in each, then gave one to Garret.
"It's probably for the best." Shorty dropped into the rocker.
"What the Hell are you talking about?"
"That horse getting away. From where I'm looking, you're better off. That son of
a bitch was out to kill you."
"I'm already dead."
"Maybe so, but what happens if you get killed again? Could be the next place is
worse than this one." Shorty tossed off his drink. "Yes sir, a damn site worse."
Garret snorted, unconvinced, and took a drink. Cheap sour mash washed down his
throat, the oily aftertaste strong enough to curl his tongue, but the fire went out
before it hit his belly. He had a strange feeling he could drink the stuff all day and
never feel a tilt.
"Well, John Garret" Shorty topped off both glasses then raised his in salute.
"Here's to better days."
"Better days?" The chair legs skidded out behind him as Garret stood up. "Won't
be any better days 'til I get that moon-eyed bastard rounded up."
"What's that going to prove?" Shorty struggled out of the rocker. "Think it
matters a tinker's damn if you ride him? Hell is Hell, and the sooner you get used
to it, the better off you'll be."
"I'll never get used to this." Garret let the door bang shut behind him. His coat
lay on top of the bar where he had dropped it. His shoulder ached fiercely as he
shrugged into the stiff wool. Behind him, the kitchen door swing open.
"You have any idea what's out there? I do." Shorty put himself between Garret
and the front doors. "You think I didn't try to walk out of this place? I tried for
months, but there ain't nowhere to go. Nothing out there but rock and dirt and that
god-awful wind. Where will you even look for him?"
"There's a creek. That means there's grass along it. That stud horse has got to
"You just ain't getting it. That horse don't have to eat anymore than you or I do.
You can track him until the leather wears off your boots, but you ain't never going
to catch him. And if you do, he'll just bust out again. He's your torment, John
Garret. Hell isn't full of devils with pitchforks and pointy tails. It's just you and
me and the snake-eyed horse that laid you out. And the sooner you swallow that
fact, the better off we'll all be."
Garret stared at him. "How'd you die, Shorty?"
The smaller man looked away. "I took sick."
"Oh." Garret had a pretty good idea what kind of fever killed Shorty. "I'm sorry
to hear that. But I wasn't sick. I got killed. No, that ain't it either. I got beat.
That horse broke me in two, and if it takes me the rest of forever, I'm going to pay
"Then what? So you break the only horse in Hell. You think the devil's going to
slap you on the back and turn you loose?"
"And what if he don't?"
"Well," Garret said softly, "At least I'll know I tried."
* * *
Garret followed the meandering creek northward. The stud had circled back to it,
his hoof prints sharp in the dust. The sun rolled close to the far-off mountains, and
reluctantly, Garret turned back. Light flickered under the kitchen door when he
arrived, Shorty no doubt sitting in his rocker. He hurried up the stairs before the
little man realized he was back. The last thing he wanted tonight was company.
The mattress sagged beneath him as he crawled under the blankets, the pain in his
arm spreading with cancerous hunger through his body. It was cold in the little
room, ice on the window. No moon shone in Hell, no silvery beams to set the frost
alight. A single bright star hung in view, and in Garret's fevered mind it became
the stud's pale eye. Even in sleep, the animal plagued him, striking from
nightmare to nightmare. He woke long before dawn, impatient for the day.
His breath hung in front of him as he struggled to button his shirt, then went
downstairs. Shorty stood behind the bar, the bottle beside him. He looked like he
hadn't bothered going to bed. Garret ignored him and pulled on his coat. The
door latch clicked as he turned the knob.
"You're a damn fool, John."
"Reckon I am." The door swung open. Cold slammed him as Garret snugged his
hat down. "See you around, Shorty."
He headed north, back to the little creek. Slowly, his blood warmed, and before he
had covered a mile sweat pooled between his shoulder blades despite the ice in his
toes. Clumps of willows, stripped of all but a few brittle leaves, clacked against
each other, loud as dice in a tinhorn's hand. The stud's tracks lay plain in the gray
dust. The creek made a sharp bend, and as he stepped around it he stopped and
A second set of tracks cut in front of him. Garret bent down and studied the print.
It was neatly rounded with a narrow frog, most likely a mare's foot. Garret smiled
to himself. Shorty had been wrong about one thing. They might be the only
humans in Hell, but there were damn sure plenty of horses.
The trail swung away from the creek toward a sagebrush covered flat. Mountains,
bare and lifeless, ringed the alkali desert. He stared at the western-most horizon.
White clouds rose above a V-shaped pass, sharp as the buckhorns on his old
Winchester. If a gate lead out of this place, it lay through that pass. He stroked
his mustache. The pass looked close, but for all he knew it might be a week's hike
on foot. More determined than ever, he turned back to the trail.
Garret climbed a low rise, then stopped dead. A dozen horses grazed on the sparse
grass, skinny mares and half-grown colts. The moon-eyed stud was with them,
pacing on the edge of the herd. He saw Garret and threw his head up. The others
saw him too, and as one they thundered up a narrow draw, dust billowing in their
"Well, well . . ." Garret stared up the draw and smiled. A herd of horses was
easier to catch than a single animal, especially in country like this where any sharp
bend might hide a trap. High on the steep hillside, the herd fanned out, the stud in
the lead. Garret laughed. "Looks like you ain't quite shut of me yet, old son."
* * *
He searched for a place to set his trap. The stream curved up a box canyon lined
with outcrops of crumbling red stone, then came to a narrow bowl and stopped. A
strange odor hung in the air, the scent of burnt matches and eggs gone bad. More
willows choked the creek bottom, and beyond them, a stand of cattails. Garret
picked his way around the little marsh and looked down.
"Well, I'll be damned."
A shallow pool of copper blue water flickered in the sunlight. Steam rose off it
only to freeze against the nearby rocks. A spring gushed out of the hillside.
Garret felt the heat, warm as the kitchen back at the Antler and shook his head in
wonder. Even in Hell, beauty found its way in.
"Reckon this ain't getting any corrals built." Garret stretched out his bad arm to
loosen it, then started piling stones and brushwood to block the gap. After an
hour, he paused to let his aching shoulder rest. Cold wind drove through his bones
like a railroad spike while he stared at the steaming pool.
"Nobody said I had to finish this in one day." Garret wandered toward the hot
springs and dangled a hand in the water. It was hot, but not so hot he couldn't
stand it. Feeling foolish, he stripped out of his clothes and stood naked in the icy
breeze. Before he could change his mind, John Garret stepped into the pool and
sighed as he settled into the engulfing warmth. He scooted to a mossy boulder,
leaned his back against it and closed his eyes.
Garret stayed in the pool longer than he expected, the water so seductive he could
barely face leaving. Finally, he crawled out and let the wind dry him a moment
before he dressed, his shoulder better after the long soak. Feeling more hopeful
than he had in ages, he started back to town.
* * *
Days came and went. Every day, Garret worked until he ached, then soaked in the
pool. Slowly, his strength returned, the hard work and hot water better than any
medicine. He told Shorty about the pool the first night he came back, but the little
man only shrugged.
"I seen it." Shorty poured himself a shot. "Long ways to walk just to take a bath."
After that, Garret didn't mention what he did. Shorty, for his part, pretended not
to care. Some days Garret left early to track the horses and study their habits
while he honed his plan. When the corral was finished, he lugged his saddle up
the winding trail and stashed it near the make-shift trap, then gathered up his
broken riata. He took it inside the Antler's kitchen and pulled up a chair.
Shorty stared dubiously at the broken rope. "You're going after that damned
"Yep." Garret unwound a length of the tight braids, then began splicing a new
"Got yourself a corral?"
"Oh." Shorty reached for his bottle. "You need help catching him?"
Garret never looked up from his braiding. "Reckon not."
"Just as well. I got a lot to do tomorrow." Shorty poured a drink, but didn't touch
it. "You really think if you break that stud you can just ride on up to St. Peter's
"I'm not sure about anything."
"Ever think you deserve to be here?" Shorty's voice cracked. "Who's to say the
Almighty didn't drop you here for a reason."
Garret stared at the floor. All his life he had been a man to act, not question, and
the idea that he had done something so horrendous to strand him here had never
crossed his mind. He lay the rope in his lap and looked up. "I done a lot of things
in my life. Some of them I'm proud of. Some I'm not. But one way or another, I
wouldn't change much."
"Then you're a lucky man. Most of us never get a second try." Shorty tried to take
a drink, but his hand shook so badly he couldn't raise the glass. "You ever love a
woman? Love her so much you ached? I did. Funny thing is, she loved me
The coal-oil lamp flickered in Shorty's eyes. "Her name was Eleanor. Long
brown hair. Eyes so bright they made the moon jealous. You've never seen a
woman so beautiful in all your days."
"You marry her?" Garret asked. Shorty nodded.
"We moved out west in the spring of '94. I kept telling her about the black soil
and how we were going to raise the biggest barn and the strongest sons in the
whole damn country."
"She took off with a traveling preacher a year after we homesteaded. Came in
from the field one day to see her sitting in his buckboard. She never even looked
back." The tremor in Shorty's hand worsened and whiskey spilled over the top of
the glass. "Reckon some women just ain't cut out to be farmer's wives."
"Did you go after her?"
"Thought about it. Thought about it hard. But when it came down to tacks, I just
couldn't find the nerve. You know, I'd never had so much as a glass of beer
before she left me. Don't think I've been sober since." He stood up, the rocker
creaking behind him, and headed for the door. "See you in the morning." The
kitchen door banged shut behind him. Garret sat as the fire in the cast-iron stove
died out, then, feeling empty inside, went back to braiding.
* * *
Morning broke cold and clear. A few bright stars still danced above the horizon as
Garret slung the riata over is shoulder, along with a ratty old blanket, and headed
out. He spotted horse tracks near the sagebrush meadow, but ignored them until
he was certain his trap was set. Aching with cold, he piled brush in front of the
trail, a final diversion to haze the animals toward the hot springs and the little
corral beside it. As ready as he could be, he returned to where he had found the
High overhead a nighthawk trilled. Garret looked up. It was the first time he had
heard one since he died, and he took it as a good sign. To the east the little town
sat like a broken toy. Far to the west lay the pass, the clouds above it scarlet as the
sun crested the horizon. The nighthawk swooped low over the sagebrush and flew
toward the distant pass. Garret smiled.
With luck, he would be heading that way, too.
He spotted the horses on the ridge, the stud, as always, walking guard along the
edge. Garret stayed downwind as he worked his way along the rocky hillside until
he stood a hundred yards above them.
"All right, John Garret," he whispered, "this is it."
The blanket fell open in his hands. With a whoop, he swung the moth-eaten cloth
around his head. Startled, the horses broke downhill.
Dust streamed behind them. Garret ran as fast as he dared across the uneven
ground. If he had been mounted it would have been a wild, headlong dash to the
box canyon. On foot, it became a plodding agony. Out of breath, he rounded the
last bend just as the horses turned up the box canyon. The moon-eyed stud
wheeled around, and for a heartbeat Garret worried he might bolt in the opposite
direction. Faster than it seemed an animal could move, the horse spun and chased
after the herd.
Garret rushed toward his trap. The horses milled around the willows, snorting and
whinnying to each other. A bay yearling saw him, and stumbled in its haste to get
away. Like a flock of birds, the animals poured inside the little corral. He
sprinted the last forty yards, yelling at the top of his lungs to keep them from
escaping before he could seal the crude pen.
"Get in there, you sons of bitches!"
It was working. Quickly, he crisscrossed juniper logs across the gap while the
horses raced around the pen, the thunder of their hooves deafening. Furious at
being trapped, the moon-eyed stud laid back his ears and charged the gate. The
logs bulged, but held while the stud squealed in rage. Garret lashed the barrier in
place, then retrieved his riata.
So far, luck was on his side. He crawled over the pen, a short length of cotton
rope tucked under his belt for hobbles. Mindful of the circling horses, he readied
a loop. The riata shot out, not at the stud's neck but his front feet. Caught, the
horse crashed to the ground, but before Garret could reach him, jerked loose.
Garret winced at the pain in his left shoulder, so sharp he thought it had been
pulled out of the socket. He coiled the rope, but the thought of another throw
seemed beyond him. Round and round the horses raced, the moon-eyed stud
keeping to the edge of the pen. Defeat lay bitter on his tongue as he realized he
couldn't do it alone. Hurting everywhere, he limped out of the pen and started
back to town.
* * *
Shorty looked up as Garret stepped inside the lobby.
"You catch him?"
"I got him penned up." Garret took a deep breath. In all his long life he had never
begged for help. "I need a hand getting a saddle on him. If you've got the time."
"You want me to help you?" Shorty's bloodshot eyes brightened, long dormant
pride stirring beneath. "Hell's bells, time's all I've got." He grabbed his coat then
started toward the door. The bar and the glass of whiskey lay along his path. He
paused, then hurried past without taking a drink. Together, they stepped outside.
Neither spoke during the long walk to the hot springs. Garret almost wished the
stud had broken free while he was gone, but the animal stood inside the pen, ears
forward, his pale eye watching every movement. Garret picked up the ratty
blanket and handed it to Shorty.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Wait till I knock him down, then come running." Garret eased over the top of the
fence and opened a loop. His shoulder throbbed and he thought about taking a
soak, but quickly abandoned the idea. The time was now or never. Squinting in
the noonday glare, he swung the rope over his head. The stud wheeled, too late to
avoid the noose around his front legs. Garret wrapped the free end of the rope
behind his back as the stud pitched forward.
"Come on, Shorty!"
"What do I do?" Fear pushed Shorty's voice high.
"Jump on his shoulder and put the blanket over his eyes," Garret shouted as the
horse thrashed. "Hurry."
"But . . ."
"Just sit on the son of bitch!"
Shorty jumped into the pen, nearly tripping in his haste. He fell on top of the
thrashing animal and wrapped the dirty green blanket around his head.
"Now what?" Shorty gasped.
"Hold him down." Garret worked his way down the riata, pulled the short rope
from under his belt and tied it around the stud's front feet. Satisfied the hobbles
would hold, he limped across the pen and untied the gate. The rest of the herd tore
out. Brown dust settled around them as he put the gnarled poles back in place.
"Keep that blanket on him, okay?"
"All right," Garret said, "let him up."
The horse lumbered to his feet, stumbled with the hobbles, then stood trembling as
Garret laid a matted pad across his back. Blind under the blanket, he pulled back
as the saddle lit behind his withers. Fast as he dared, Garret threaded the cinch,
then carefully worked the stiff hackamore under the blanket. The stud fought, but
Shorty held tight. Nearly done, Garret pulled up on the latigo until the cinch was
so tight he could barely squeeze two fingers between it and the stud's ribs.
Quietly, he untied the hobbles.
He took a moment to gather himself, then grabbed the saddle horn. With his free
hand, he turned the stirrup toward him and eased his toe inside. Soft as a falling
leaf, Garret swung into the saddle. The horse bunched under him, back arched
high and ready to blow. Shorty looked up.
"You sure about this?"
Garret gathered the reins in his hand, and nodded. Shorty pulled the blanket off
and stepped back.
For one long, merciless second, the moon-eyed stud did nothing.
Then, he exploded.
Garret sat a whirlwind, an avalanche, a stick of blasting powder. Every jump
struck like a sledge hammer. He tried to pull the stud's head around, but the horse
was too strong. Nose nearly to the ground, the palomino kicked high. Garret felt
himself falling forward and grabbed the saddle horn. His shoulder screamed in
agony as they lit and jumped again. Shorty ducked aside as the horse struck the
Wood splintered as they broke through. Gritting his teeth, Garret pulled the
animal toward the canyon wall. Up the rocky hill they raced, loose scree flying
out behind. Up and up until it felt like they would topple backwards, the moon-eyed stud ran, desperate to shake the tormentor off his back. Garret pulled him
around, and they rushed headlong back to the canyon floor.
Along the narrow creek they charged, horse and man, neither ready to quit. The
stud jumped the marshy bank and plowed through the willows. Whip-thin
branches snapped at Garret's face as they broke out onto the wide flats. Far in the
distance the clouded pass beckoned. As if he sensed his own freedom lay past the
distant mountains, the horse laid his ears back and stretched out toward it. It
would be so easy to let him run and all else be damned. He'd done it.
He had, hadn't he? The horse was beat, he could tell it. But, that didn't seem to
matter now. Instead of feeling elation, he felt hollow inside, like the stove back at
the Antler, full of cold ash and smoke. Breaking the stud didn't change a thing.
He was here for a reason, all right, but besting the horse that had shaded him
wasn't it. Beneath him, the animal staggered, winded from running. Garret let
him slow, his mind clear as the sky above him, stretching out for the answer that
had missed him so long. The thought was slow in coming, but when it did, it
struck like a charging bull.
This wasn't Hell. It was a school house, a place to learn the things he should have
picked up when he was alive, but hadn't. He'd learned a hard lesson today when
he admitted he couldn't catch the horse alone. It had cost him his pride to ask
Shorty for help, but the little drunkard had been enough of a friend not to throw it
back in his face. Now, Garret realized, smiling to himself, it was time to pay back
the favor. He gathered up the reins and pulled back.
"Whoa, you piss-eyed bastard!"
Garret hauled on the reins until the exhausted horse's nose brushed his right knee.
Stumbling, they came to a stop. Before the winded animal could try him again, he
spun him in tight circles until both were dizzy.
"I've never seen the like -- you did it." Shorty jogged down the canyon, his
cheeks red as his nose. "I thought he had you for sure."
"So did I." Garret spun the horse once more, then stepped out of the saddle. His
legs nearly collapsed as he hit the ground. Shorty hurried toward him and he
gratefully passed him the reins.
"That was quite a ride." Shorty gripped the reins beneath the stud's jaw, keeping
well clear of the front feet. The grin on his face faded. "Reckon this means you'll
be heading for that pass, now."
"No." Garret rubbed his shoulder. "I ain't going anywhere. You are."
Pale as the winter sky, Shorty stared at him. "I don't know what you're talking
"Yes, you do. This ain't Hell. It's just someplace to get past on the way out."
Garret snugged the cinch a little tighter, the leather slick with dirty white foam,
then nodded at the saddle. "Get on and head him toward that pass. He'll do the
"I . . . I can't." Shorty gasped for air. "I'm no bronc stomper."
"You don't have to be. That horse wants to go as bad as you do." Garret crowded
the smaller man toward the stirrup. "You said it yourself. Not many men get a
second chance to prove themselves. Well, here's yours."
"But . . ."
"Damn it, Shorty, plant your ass in that saddle before I change my mind."
The tired horse staggered as Shorty lumbered into the saddle. Fear glazed his eyes
as Garret handed him the reins. "What about you? What are you going to do?"
"Right now, I'm going to soak the ache out of this shoulder." Garret eased away
from the stud's neck. "Good luck, Shorty. I'll see you on the other side." Before
either man could say more, he swatted the horse on the rump. The animal
bunched, then took off. Shorty clung low to the stud's neck, awkward as a
monkey on a pony. Garret stood a long time until both horse and rider vanished
over the horizon, nothing left but the dust drifting on the wind. Body aching but
his spirit young again, he trudged back to the hot springs, stripped down to his
hide, and eased into the welcoming water.
* * *
Slowly, day after day, the world around him changed, winter drifting into spring.
Ice turned to mud, pale green shoots peeking out from beneath clumps of
sagebrush and last year's grass. Garret could taste the change in the air, an
endless, ageless scent so old it needed no name.
It tasted like hope.
For days after Shorty left, he stood on the ridge, watching for him. But, as time
wore on, he went less and less, convinced at last the stocky little man had made it.
He smiled at the thought of Shorty perched high on the palomino's back as they
thundered through the Pearly Gates. The aches in his body healed slowly, the hot-spring tonic for his bones, and gradually his strength returned. He repaired his
corral, and at night sat by the kitchen stove, rolling smokes while he braided a new
hackamore. Shorty's bottle sat on top of the bar, untouched, the cork stuffed tight.
He watched the horses, too. The mares had started to drop their foals, all spindly
legs and bristle tails as they pranced behind their mothers. One in particular
caught his eye, a white horse-colt with one blue eye. Young as he was, the colt
stood head high and proud, and Garret could tell he was going to be a handful.
But then, he wouldn't have it any other way.