Western Short Story
Life had its full range of artillery out for him, front and center. Oh, Death of the Pale Rider sounded anew in the silence of Briggs Thornton’s mind, even as the day bore itself harsh as a frozen thunderbolt, a huge icicle with breath and as cold as the bank was to his latest overture. Around his neck the wrap of a muffler was not a comfortable wrap, feeling it a trade-off of an itch to keep the chill off his nape.
Adding to all his misery, Humboldt was sick, the stallion not going to make it out of the barn on his own, not on those great legs for sure. And the ground now frozen at least two feet down. Briggs Thornton didn’t know how he was going to bury Humboldt, if it came to that, though everything pointed to his death. It would be like setting in a new gasoline tank, all that digging. Not selling that great animal for glue or meat was a certainty, but the weather was dropping a degree an hour and would sock the earth into more solid granite, Mother Earth’s deep-poured concrete. Keeping that worry company was the other onus working on him, the responsibility of getting Dabney Overton, his last ranch hand, settled someplace, not appeasement but settlement, not payment but duty, for the old ramrod was so owed. A seventy-year old man doesn’t just up and move on from where he’s spent fifty years of his life, no matter how mouthy he was getting. Of late the ranch hand’s impatience with Briggs’ decision-making had become very noticeable. “Sometime when the time comes, boss, it’s already gone.” And Briggs’ wife Mavreen had noted on a number of occasions that the old cowpoke was getting “testy and stretching his mouth too far from the saddle.”
The frozen thunderbolt clapped about him again. Oh, Death of the Pale Rider.
At the moment Briggs couldn’t discern if Humboldt’s problem was worse than the foreclosure he was facing, or Dabney’s imminent plight. A hundred and twenty years on this New England land were the Thorntons from the old country after the first of them being stashed in a horrible ship’s hold for a damnation of a journey. And it had fallen upon him to lose the land they had quested and conquered, land with more than one page of history. This was the place where the first Thorntons fought the Puritans, the Brahmins, as well as the new politics, and came clear across the country to the new land, to the western breaths. And here long ago was found the body of Quilkin the Sneak Pirate atop three of his crew in a deep ditch below the cliffs in the north section, cliffs rising as a fortification for the north pasture. The three pirates had been shot in the back, and Quilkin in the face, as if he had shot them in the hole and one of them, not quite gone to sea, had fired back at their killer.
Humboldt, Briggs’ own horse for years, was a black giant, with eyes like great greenish-yellow orbs stolen out of a Chinese color scheme. They were readable and you knew he was knowing you, but couldn’t say if he enjoyed the company or not. Briggs’ father, Jock Taggard Thornton, died thirty years earlier sitting up frozen on Humboldt’s sire, the other great black that owned outright those vast spreads the Thorntons claimed. His name had been Manitou the Magnificent. Manitou had brought the old gent back to the barn in the midst of the worst sneak storm in a hundred years, stiff and straight up as a bayonet-stuck rifle he was, marking his death on the battlefield of storms.
Young Briggs, from a kitchen window in the long house, knew from the posture of the rider, from his rigid sitting the saddle, that he had heard the last Yeats’ poem from his father on the wide summer porch where the fireflies would dance him off to bed. In all those years, he had not forgotten that silent death, the awful and visible stiffness of the man of tongues, the storyteller. To that scene he had given the title Death of the Pale Rider, the way man and horse made a dim silhouette against the snow-battered barn, a moon-like and sparsely colored silhouette at best. But each time out it seemed as though the old man’s voice always said the words of the title and not his own voice, not even under his own breath where identity is always found.
Death of the Pale Rider. The old gent had said it again, as if hung out on a point of the frozen thunderbolt. Thereafter, the prairie stars held it in an echo his cupped hand could find any night he sat a saddle, watched the skies.
But Briggs kept thinking about the great black horse, the eyes wild at times, and he could bring back instantly his own early fright at the size of such creatures, the way they trod the fields massive as a mountain, fearful with height. Horses like Humboldt, in Briggs’ young days, filled the barn door like some colossus out of Egypt or Rhodes he’d only seen in picture books.
“You’ll have to truck him out somehow,” his wife Mavreen said as he entered the kitchen, swinging her hair up in a gesture, all the punctuation she needed to stress her adjudication. “Get him out of here before he freezes up and in the spring rouses flies and maggots.” Mavreen had not been on a horse yet, after eight years of marriage. That had been a minor difficulty in the beginning; Briggs’ first wife Julia Rose had fallen from horseback and been impaled on a broken shovel handle. She had walked to a nearby road, holding onto the shovel handle, and collapsed in front of a car coming over the hill. She was dead long before she arrived at the hospital. Mavreen, in turn, was insensitive to horses of any kind, yet her shape was still thin and curving and her skin glowed with a rosiness that five-mile walks returned to her. At times Briggs was convinced her only care-giving was in bed. It was not fair, he thought, but it might be true. Glory be in the truth, he smiled sub-vocally, letting part of an argument fall away.
Clad in a denim down jacket, Briggs had come into the kitchen for coffee, and a sheen of silver rode his hair as if the frost had touched it with a wand. His eyes were dark and brittle and a moment of the cold had come with him, sweeping under Mavreen’s skirts, and bristling in its rise to touch the back of her neck. He saw her shiver, offered her his coffee. She smiled back, “You can’t duck it, Briggs. We got troubles piling on us. I know you love that animal, but he’s going to make more trouble, mark my words.”
Briggs, at small evasion, felt like musing. “The old gent must be rolling over in his grave or raising hell among the clouds. Might be paying us back in a new storm. Forecast is unsettled but it looks like snow, even this cold.”
“I’m talking about the bills, Briggs. They just don‘t go away when you talk about something else. Even if you sell the stock we have left, we can’t pull ourselves out of this one. I know you’re worrying about Dab, too.” She tossed her hair again, as much a gesture of futility as she could muster in the face of the man she loved but whose horses she wouldn’t ride for love or money. “I won’t tell you what he said yesterday.”
“Don’t gunnysack me, Mav. Don’t add on to it. I’m not struggling to realize what’s at us. I’ve been hard at it for months. I wanted to sell off a smaller piece, but it’s like heaven or hell’s been arranged against us.”
“Or Danton Oliver at the bank has arranged it so that no one comes forward with an offer. He’s sworn to get this land. We’ve known that for a long time. I think he’s spent a long time arranging us behind the eight ball, and you keep getting hung up on a horse. My god, Briggs, you lost one wife to a horse.” Her mouth hung open, full of her own surprise. The chill touched her again.
The knife-edge of that implicit statement slipped under Briggs’ skin. “Mav, you always knew and still know that what counts first with me is loyalty. That great horse out there,” and he nodded to the barn, “has earned his way through life. He has supported us every inch of the way and I’ll be damned to see him cut up for glue or meat just so we can get him out of here at the least cost to us. He’s earned his way!” As if in agreement with Briggs’ promise, the wind shifted around and came directly out of the northeast and banged against the windows and the walls of the old homestead. Someplace a board was loose and slapping at its connection and the sound of a barn door slamming boomed like a chunk of thunder. “And Dab counts, just like you say. We can always move on I suppose, but I’m not sure he can. I know he’s worried a whole lot more than he shows. His mouth is just part of that.”
Briggs sipped his coffee as a signal, put his jacket back on; the motions said things loose have to be righted. He welcomed Mavreen into his arms as she said, “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded, Briggs. Not really. There’s just so much weight coming down atop us. I know what history means to you. The family. The vows. And the promises that people long dead have exacted from you. I’m just so helpless in this. I can’t get horses into my blood. It’s the way I am.”
She wanted to stand on her toes, to look directly into his eyes at his level. “Horses have nothing for me. It is not a sin for me. It’s just what I am. And now I’m damn worried about what’s going to happen, not to us, but to all of this.” Her gesture of widespread hands meant the whole ranch. “My very last gem was in that recent payment.” Her fingers were bare, her wrists were bare and he knew her jewelry box was empty. Briggs Thornton drew her tighter than he had in a long while. “I know what you’ve given up, Mav, but don’t give up the last treasure you’ve got. Don’t give up hope.” The steel of his arms cut her short of breath and he slipped out the door, each of them sharing the delayed pressure of the other against their bodies.
Leaning against the wind, Briggs saw one barn door slapping loose and a board floating nearly free in a tall fence beside the barn. As the wind blew around him, as the cold continued its hold on the surfaces of all things, his mind kept searching for a solution to the coming problem. Dabney Overton, Briggs’ last employee and fifty years at this hitch, stood at Humboldt’s stall, his collar tight about his neck, a wool stocking cap down over his ears, age cutting across his face the way lines cut old canvas, eyes calling out an old ramrod’s backbone.
“It gets no better, Briggs. Soon’s it comes, he goes down like a shot. I’ve seen it before, like I said yesterday. Davey Warwick’s Hellfire went down the same way, like as I said. No name for it but plain tired and life gone out of the blood.” Briggs was thinking that Dabney’s voice was loaded with messages. “It’s the way some heroes go, Briggs. Just the way they choose. Hellfire was not the horse this one was, but he was a piece, I’ll tell you.”
“Soon you think?”
“Yuh, all of that. If it’s just you and me, we best get him set for the easy move, get him where we can manage him with the tractor.” Dabney pointed to the open part of the barn, the finger pointing repeatedly and loaded with enunciation. “Best get him there, under a blanket or two and wait him out. Be a trick or two if I do say.” As if to throw that problem under the shadow of another problem, he said, “I have a few hundred dollars in my kit and a few checks not cashed yet. You’re welcome to them. This place has been home to me for too damn long. I don’t like the thought of leaving it in a huff.”
Briggs wanted to put an arm around Dabney’s shoulder, but held off. "You and Mav been the best part of me through all this, and you loving horses and her not. Different you are and the same. What I been thinking, Dab, is to drop him at the foot of the cliff and dropping a chunk of it over him. Blast it off with dynamite. That long fissure across the top face has been beaten at by wind and water and the earthchill for a million years now. We might pop enough loose to give him cover forever.”
“That’s a decent tolerable idea, Briggs. We got some trouble getting Humboldt into the ground where he belongs, but we can sure keep him from the scavengers. There’s a whole lot of them out there’d like to tear his carcass to pieces, right to the quick of his bones.” At his slight urging, the great horse listlessly moved out of his stall and Dabney threw a blanket over his back.
As he was about to throw the second blanket on him, the yellow eyes of Humboldt turned white and then a lime green and full of shadow, and the great horse crashed to the floor of the barn. The two men could hear a leg bone breaking, caught at the wrong angle, the body athwart itself and falling. There came no other sound but the escape of breath, as if a huge canister emptied itself of air. The wide barn was silent on the inside, only the wind talking on the outside, beating at boards, seeking to whistle its entry. Humboldt allowed one more cavernous sound from his lungs and made silence a fitting gesture, a hero easing off almost by himself. The whole structure of barn board and beam shook down through the fieldstone foundation, and emptiness ensued, a very heady emptiness, as if all things were beholding to death itself, patience being the ultimate acknowledgment.
With chain and rope and a come-along, they got the great horse onto a sled attached to the tractor, Dabney muttering all the time he was setting chain and rope. At last, figuring to have complained long enough, he exclaimed, almost under his breath, about the final demise of the faithful. “Talk about a kick in the hind quarters, this is a one! Sorry, hoss, never believed I’d see it! Get your ass dragging and they drag your ass off!”
Briggs, tying knots, testing them, was trying to understand all the asides thrown at him by the old rider. He felt a crude rawness and cold stabbing at his hands and at his heart, and the muffler failing on his neck again.
In the cold blue air they hauled Humboldt off to the section of cliff at the northern end of the ranch, along with a cache of dynamite.
They left the sled with Humboldt atop it against the face of the cliff. Dabney drove the tractor into the copse of cottonwoods standing like a quiver of arrows fifty yards away, his shoulders hanging rounded and sloped. Briggs had not seen the old man like this before. History, he thought, was suddenly catching up to the old rider.
Briggs set up the charges inside the fissure snaking across the front of the cliff. Thirty minutes work in the cold air had him sweating. The picture of his father astride Manitou, the great barn pale behind them, kept entering his mind. He could not shake that eternal picture or the sounds coming with it, Death of the Pale Rider. It was neither song nor eulogy, but it was continuous, rhythmic, in tune with the wind doing its work, spiraling the snow along. Then, as if willing to get out from under one image, something in his mind grabbed onto an image of Julia Rose with the shovel handle coming through her stomach. He knew, down into his boots, that he was the one going to suffer all the family’s history. It was his due, it was coming at him. In the midst of it all he could see a crowded ship off the coast of Cork, heading for America. The teeming mass below deck was a piece of Cork itself, dark, damp and highly unsure that trailblazing was ahead of them.
The frigid air was at his sweat, and beads of it froze him into a new consciousness. He counted out the sticks of dynamite he had planted and reaffirmed their locations. Calling out to let Dabney know the blast was soon coming, he heard him yell back, his voice hollow and distant. Briggs walked back away from the cliff edge trailing the wire behind him. He hid behind a huge boulder, heard the wind blow around him, the short whispers he was always prone to, heard all the ghosts, could almost feel the thickness of clouds building darker in the northern sky, and fired the charge.
The blast set off a large section of the cliff, as if a plate had separated from the front face, and that whole section dropped as one piece, falling away in slow motion and then breaking up in a thunderous roar. There was a little smoke and less dust. The wind had quieted as if the blast had set it back on its heels. When Briggs walked off the far end of the cliff and down past the copse of trees, he saw the tractor, the face of the cliff broken over what had been Humboldt on the sled. They were completely covered. He did not see Dabney anywhere, but saw one set of tracks in the snow heading back toward the cliff.
Dabney’s impatience had won out.
Caught up in the madness of death, Death of the Pale Rider sounding out again for him, Briggs Thornton suddenly noted, on the newly exposed face of the cliff, his father astride a great horse silhouetted against the white of the barn, Julia Rose with the shovel handle coming through her gut, the darkness in the hold of a ship long gone to sea, an old man with his arm around the neck of a big black horse, and the glitter of gold pieces and gems freed from Quilkin the Sneak Pirate’s hiding place in the cliff.
He was not sure what his treasure was.