One gray morning, on a cattle ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Benjamin LaStrange was sweeping the wood-planked floor in the horse barn. There had been a barn dance the night before and there was wood shavings from the sawmill scattered to catch the spilled beer and tobacco spit. It also made for nice dancing.
It was a cold morning, colder than normal for this time of year. They had gotten about three inches of snow last night, which would turn to slush in the afternoon heat, if the sun would come out. The air was crisp and the smell of pine dust wafted up while he swept. The scent of leather saddles mixed with that of the wood shavings made one feel at home in the barn and in the mountains.
Benjamin, a boy of twelve, loved ranch life. He had only ever dreamt of being a cowboy and running the ranch one day. His father was a veteran in the industry and was well on his way to making one hell of hand out of the young man. But there was still much left to learn.
Benjamin heard footsteps crunching in the snow coming down the hill from the house. “Benjy,” his father said, stopping and leaning against the barn door, “I need you to catch some horses when you’re done cleaning up.”
“Okay,” the boy replied, “Say is it gonna snow some more? What’s the radar look like?”
“I don’t know son, did you hear me?” His father said impatiently.
“Yeah,” he explained, “Who you want?”
“Bonnie, Sioux, Chili Pepper, and Rango,”
“Alright, I’ll get ‘em,” said Benjy, he dropped his head and kept pushing broom. He wondered what they would need those nags for. Each of them were, after all, old, lame, cancerous, or just plain crazy. Not good for much anymore.
His father took a step backward out of the barn and tipped back his black felt Stetson hat, and looked up into the endless gray sky. “Yah,” he said, “It’s supposed to snow a good bit today.”
Benjy knew this meant he should probably drop the broom and grab four halters. On a ranch this time of year, you do what outside tasks you can while it isn’t snowing. And you save the indoor tasks, like sweeping the barn, for later when it is snowing. So he propped the broom against a cedar post and walked over to the hook of halters and lead ropes. He grabbed his four favorite ones and draped them over his arm.
He walked out to the catch corral, snow crunching underneath his feet, and caught the horses. He tied them to the hitching post outside the barn door. He was combing the beasts when his father came back down from the house wearing a .45 revolver on his hip. “We’re not saddling them up, son,” he said, “We’re taking them to the back of the property.”
“Oh,” Ben said, “Okay.” He stopped combing and held his hand on the side of Rango. The horse’s gray hair had started to thicken and lengthen in response to the coming winter. Benjy felt the warmth of the beast as its breast heaved, expanding and contracting with each breath. He marveled at the steam that jetted from the horse’s nostrils. Like a locomotive, he thought, rumbling through the canyon.
They walked behind the barn and out through the pasture. Benjy lead Bonnie and Rango behind Sioux and Chili Pepper, which followed the boy’s father. The sixteen hooves and four feet made lots of noise in the autumn snow. His head swam.
He thought of a time when he was little, able to ride, but too little for the ability to climb in and out of saddle unassisted. They were gathering the cows from the summer pasture and he and Rango were sent around a big stand of Pines to check for cows.
They traveled through the forest and came to a clearing. The group of trees stopped in a straight line about twenty-five yards from a shear rock outcropping. The boy and his nag stepped out of the timber and looked all around. The horse’s nostrils flared and his ears pricked and pivoted like satellites. To their right was the corner of the barbed-wire fence and to their left was pasture that had already been gathered. There were no bovines in sight, so Benjy drew rein and tried to turn the horse around. Suddenly, Rango balked and reared, neighing loudly and snorting.
“What’s wrong with you?” Benjy said. “Come on!” He started kicking his short leg against the left side of the animal and pulled his reins to the right. The horse finally relented and started to turn.
Just then, Benjy saw something moving down the rocks out of the corner of his eye. Before he could turn and look, the horse bolted toward the trees. Benjy grabbed the saddle horn and turned around to see a mountain lion running at full clip toward them. His eyes bugged. There wasn’t time to think before the cat was close enough to jump at him atop the horse. In a last ditch effort Rango fired a double barrel kick backwards, one of his hooves connecting squarely with the white chest of the cat. It flew backwards and hit the ground, springing to its feet and stumbling toward them again, it lumbered to the side and fell down again.
The buck from the horse had left the child dangling off the side of the saddle with one foot in the stirrup and both hands on the horn.
“Woah!” Benjy shouted. Rango came to a stop and waited for the boy to sit back up and gather the reins. He turned and saw the cat limping away up the rocks. It wheezed and coughed. Benjy’s heart was pounding. He bent over and hugged the horse’s neck for a long moment and whispered gratefully, “Good boy.”
That was the last time Benjy rode Rango to gather cows, he was retired to a trail horse shortly thereafter. Benjy smiled at the memory. They walked on toward the back of the property, feet and hooves crunching in the snow and his father yelled back, “Remember that time in Casper when Sioux dumped me in the river?”
Benjy laughed, “Yeah! I remember. I thought you were gonna kill him.”
“I won a roping in Cheyenne on him the next weekend,” his father added, and he dropped his head.
At the back of the property was a big pile of dirt and a mini excavator sitting beside a grave big enough for four horses. Benjy took a deep breath and sighed. All of a sudden, his heart felt as heavy as the snow on his boots. They tied three of the horses to a couple of Aspen trees and his father took Chili Pepper over to the far side of the hole.
Benjy watched with wide eyes as his father stood in front of the horse and drew his revolver. He took a deep breath and there was a loud “POP!” In an instant the horse threw her head down and drew up all four feet, her heavy body crashing to the snow. The horse rolled to its side, legs straightening. The bowels relaxed and the carcass let out a loud fart and a few clods of manure. Bright red blood flowed from the mouth of the animal. Blood dripped from the hole where the bullet had entered. A line drawn down between the ears and across the eyes, just where his father had said. Surrounding the hole was the red hair that made the shape of a pepper on her otherwise white face. She stilled. The boy was speechless.
His father knelt down and picked up the head of the animal to untie the halter. He slid it out and gave it to Benjy, who draped it over his left arm. Walking toward the other three horses, he said “Ahh, I probably should have done Sioux first.”
Benjy looked over and saw the other three horses who had reacted to the event. Rango stood looking off into the distance, expressionless. Bonnie shuffled her feet uneasily. And Sioux was having a melt down.
He reared and pulled on his lead rope. He grunted and snorted, even whinnied. He walked back and forth between the two ends of his tether, turning his hind quarters each time. The man approached and low and long said, “Woooooooah.” He untied the horse and started toward the hole. Sioux took a few steps and stopped, snorting and leaning back against the halter. He then stepped forward again and stopped. He did this dance a few more times.
The horse’s legs stiffened and it fell over with a loud thump. The hind legs kicked madly, trying to run away. Another bowel release produced more farts and more shit. Benjy wanted to laugh, because this one sounded funny to his young ears. But he couldn’t. To laugh, he felt, would have been profoundly disrespectful the animal.
At the third shot, Bonnie fell, but it was more of a soft collapse. Fitting, Benjy thought, for a horse so gentle as she. She would cross a river or chase down and rope a bull without a second thought. But she had also carried children up the mountain and wounded hikers back down it. She never lost her footing or her cool. She would walk over to you and put her head into your hand like a dog wanting to be scratched. She lived sweetly and quietly and had died the same way. Benjy’s father removed the halter and handed it to him, which he hung with the other two on his left arm.
Finally, Rango had stood cool as a cucumber next to the Aspen tree. He had watched the whole show, and when Benjy’s father untied him, he sighed a long sigh. The man said something to the horse as they walked that Benjy couldn’t hear, except for the last bit. He whispered, “I’m sorry ol’ bud, but thank you,” and rubbed the animal’s face.
Rango closed his eyes and felt the man’s hand against his face as he had many times over the last two decades. The hand that trained him, the hand that doctored him, the hand that fed him. It was the hand that threw the rope from his back. The same one that hammered shoes onto his feet. And that hand was rubbing in between his eyes, as it had so many times before, saying last time, “Good job. Good boy.”
Benjy’s dad drew his gun, took aim and fired quickly, before he could stop himself. The horse fell hard, picking up his forelegs and throwing down his head. He kicked a few times with one hind foot. The carcass released air and manure. It writhed momentarily before becoming still. Bright red blood flowed from its mouth.
Before the two stewards lay four animals, one on each side of the grave. The ranch was quiet. The air was cold.
“Here,” Benjy’s father reached out to hand him the last of the halters, “Take ’em back to the barn and get the team ready. Gotta feed before it starts snowing again.”
Benjy took the halter and draped it over his arm and looked his father in the face. His eyes were wet with tears.
“Does this ever get easier?” The boy asked.
His father paused for a long time, so long that Benjy assumed he hadn’t heard him. “I suppose it does,” he said and drew in a breath, “That’s not necessarily a good thing though.”
Benjy took one last look at the animals on the ground and turned around. Walking back through the pasture, he watched the snow pass under his feet. He noticed every hoof print. He thought about how similar the horse’s deaths were to their lives. Bonnie went sweetly, Sioux went reluctantly, and Rango went boldly. None of them, however, died with dignity. There must be no dignity in death.
It just happens to you, he thought. An inevitable truth of life. There’s no big moment. It sweeps through and happens suddenly and indiscriminately. Like when he shot his first deer. Or like when that coyote ate the barn cat, Ginger. Or when his grandmother died. Like flipping a light switch, it’s just over. And the rest of the world keeps living until it’s their turn.
It’s a necessary part of life, he thought. Things live their life, they serve their purpose, and they die. They make space for new things to live.
Benjy thought about these things on his walk back to the barn. The halters grew heavy on his arm. The snow crunched under his boots, only quieter. More flakes started falling from the sky. And Benjamin cried.