Echelon

Submitted by Warren Woods to Contest #12 in response to: Write a story that features an ensemble cast of characters.... view prompt

The pale sun lifted over the distant mountains. The vast and flat land was illuminated and the dirt and sand underneath the horse slowly warmed. It was a cut horse and the best one the ranch owner had seen in his career. It was possible that a fog had clouded the exactness of the details of his memory as it stretched over time, forming a bias of his opinion on the current horse or any one previous. The old man had been leading this present horse throughout the rugged desert terrain for a decade, rounding his cattle about. The buckskin horse stood in the corral with his head down near the sturdy wood and wire fence that surrounded the stable. As the sun continued to rise into view, the horse whinnied and brushed away the flies with his tail. From the horse’s shoulder blades to his hindquarters, he was tan and as the color approached the bottom of his hooves the color changed from dark brown to black. His head was light brown and a symmetrical white blotch covered his hide near his nose and eyes.


The owner of the ranch approached the gate but looked off towards the rising sun. Barely looking at the lock, if at all, he unlatched the gate and dragged it open wide enough for him to step in to the pen. He looked at the horse as it stood broadside to him and with one eye the horse returned an informed glance. The man stepped over to the horse and placed a hand on his neck near his mane and told the horse that they would need to move quickly to round up the cattle before a forecasted heavy rain set in. 


He lifted the saddle out of the stable and set it on the horse and waited until the horse exhaled to cinch it tight. He fit the bridle fast and walked the horse back to the gate and out it and latched it closed. The man stepped into the foothold and threw his leg over the horse and began to ride towards the creek bed. The land was mostly flat and dull between the ranch house and the creek, but a steep ridge stood on either side of a low pass that the cattle used to cross through. Upon pushing the cattle to the pasture, the man and horse stood atop the southern ridge and watched over the cattle as they crossed through the pass. This allowed for a thorough and careful watch over them and a guarantee that everything moved through to the other side before he and the horse carried on. 


As they set back from the creek towards the ridge opening, all but a couple of calves were through. The sky began to darken and the morning sun could be seen no more. The man sat atop the horse and then the ridge and then the desert and the earth like a cowboy engaged in a contest of king of the hill. Thunder reverberated across the plain behind the man’s back. The horse turned its head toward the origin of the sound but the man kept careful view of the cattle until all had passed through and marched ahead a hundred or so yards from the opening. Without explicitly communicating it, the man told the horse it was time to descend and not to fear the rain. The steady raindrops soaked the desert floor and slowly washed out tiny cracks along rocks and boulders until they reached the low spots on either side of the ridge and eventually to the creek on the other side. The ridge was now dark and glistened as if the exposed stone had been glazed with creosote. The man soaked to the bone, he and the horse descended. He attempted to dry his eyes but like drops of water blotted on an ink canvas, sight became difficult and the landscape was blurry as he squinted. It was difficult for him to determine the horse’s concern of the rain but he trusted in its confident navigation down the steep ridge. Halfway down, the horse stepped on the edge of a large boulder, half of its hoof in the thick sand and the other on the slick rock, and lost traction, its forward shoulder dropping. The man, one hand horizontal and firmly pressed against his forehead to avert rainfall, lost grip of the rein strap with his other hand and slid off of the saddle over the side of the horse and plunged down the ridge. The sudden unburdening of the man on the horse allowed the horse to step up off of the ledge and back onto the trail. The horse saw the man, unmoving, at the bottom of the ridge. His hat sat near his head, inverted, collecting rain.


___________


“No cigarettes today?” The cashier asked.


“No sir. Quittin’.” The young man replied.


The young man raised his open palm above his head and lifted his Stetson cowboy hat straight up and with the fingers on his left hand combed his hair to the back of his head and then set the hat back down snug. He grabbed the six pack from the counter and turned toward the exit. 


“Have a nice day now.” The cashier said and leaned his back against the counter, looking out the window. 


On the cork board near the door, a for sale ad caught the young man’s eye. He stopped and leaned in close to read it.




FOR SALE


$500

Purebred Buckskin

Cattle trained

Bright and long career ahead

Selling ranch

Contact Glorieta

127 Lone Pine Road


A horse was hardly of necessity to the young man but he recognized a deal when he saw one. He’d spent the better part of his life getting something for nothing and selling it for something more to someone. A horse of this stature for the listed price was certainly a deal and would not be available for more than a couple of days. In fact, he’d be lucky if the horse wasn’t already sold. Not every cowpoke has that kind of cash readily accessible but any man with ambition would recognize this as a steal and find a way to make a deal or a series of deals to barter with this horse-selling woman. Glorieta. He thought a fine name.


The young man clicked his tongue and gently nodded his head.


“Well, that is that.” He said to himself under his breath. He exited with the case of beer under his arm and climbed into his truck. On the way he stopped and hitched his truck to a two-horse trailer that belonged to a man he worked with. He then headed toward Lone Pine Road.


He signaled as he departed from the asphalt highway and onto the packed gravel. Above, three buzzards formed a circle and slowly soared, wings wide. The young man did not see them from his truck. He moved closer to the ranch and approached an open gate that surrounded the property. A semi trailer was adjacent to the gravel driveway with the rear gates open wide and a large grated ramp secured to the lip of the semi trailer. Where it met the ground a temporary fence sat on either side with sandbags at the base of each post and both sides of it made an elongated curve towards the pasture gate. A man on a horse was pushing the cattle toward the gate and ramp as two younger men stood on either side of it. The horse in the ad that brought the young man to this ranch could not be seen from the front of the ranch. 


“Sellin’ the ranch, indeed.” The young man said to himself quietly as he slowed his truck. He came to a stop and put the truck in park and turned the engine off. He threw his old work coat over the case of beer and stepped out of the truck. When he shut the door, the two men on either side of the ramp looked over his direction. One gave an exaggerated nod from across the driveway.


“Howdy.” The young man said as he approached the tractor trailer.


“Afternoon.” The nodding man said aloud. 


“Ya’ll buy all these cattle?” The young man asked the two workers.


“I ain’t bought shit. My boss and his outfit did.” The nodding man pointed forehead toward his boss who sat upon a horse in the pasture, rounding up the cattle toward the gate.


“Ya’ll know where I can find Glorieta?” The young man asked.


“In the house, if she’s to be found.” The nodding man responded. He swung his head to the side and behind him toward the ranch house.


The young man knocked on the front door of the ranch house. He waited. He gave the door another knock and then walked around the house to the rear where a small barn and a machine shed were visible. He headed for what he thought was the horse stable. He approached the gate and leaned over and looked into the stable. Seeking shade, the horse stood inside.


The ranch widow’s voice came from behind him as he looked in.


“Hi there. You here for the horse? Or are you with the cattlemen?” Glorieta walked toward the young man. She was looking at the man and trying to read him. Her hand blocked the buzzing sun from her face. The young man turned from the horse and looked at the ranch widow. Elegant and devoted. She wore pleated pale khaki pants and a denim work shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. “I gotta say, you sure got here quick. I just posted ads about town this morning.”


“He’s a good lookin’ horse. What I seen of him hidin’ in the stable, anyway. He ain’t gun shy is he?”


“No, no, no. He’s used to working hard in the heat all day, so he takes a break in the shade any chance he gets. He won’t quit on ya, though. Not never.”


“Hm. Can I get a better look at him?”


“Well, you know howta open a gate latch don’t ya? Step on in and get a look, he don’t mind.”


“Yes ma’am.” He opened the latch and dragged the gate open across the packed sand and stepped into the pen and walked toward the stable. He stepped into the shadow where the horse stood and let his own eyes adjust to the lack of light. The horse lowered his head slightly but his eyes remained deadlocked and it took a casual step toward the man. He saw his own reflection in the dark eyes of the horse. A silhouette of a man, himself, surrounded by a doorway of bright white light, the young man thought the horse’s hardened eyes looked into his soul and his heart and saw all there was to see within himself. The horse here, alone with the young man and out of view of the ranch widow, tempting him to sojourn his soul. A wave of cool air rushed over the young man’s arms and resulted in a biting chill throughout his body and deep into his soul.


He turned and stepped out from the shadow. “Five hundred, right?” 


“Yes. As with everything here, priced to sell.” The ranch widow said as she looked around the property.


“I understand. I saw every head a cattle being trailered too.” The young man responded, feeling obligated to spend a minute talking kindly to the woman who presented the bargain of a lifetime to him.


“Yes. Yes. Everything’s getting liquidated. Then I intend to sell the land and move in with my daughter in north Texas.” 


“I see.”


“You’re probably wonderin’ why any sane being would do such a thing.” She said.


“Everyone’s got their reasons, ma’am. It ain’t none of my business.”


“Well, I suppose you’re prob’ly right.”


The young man assumed there was a man in the picture at one time and that the woman was not selling because she had fallen on hard times. He looked around at the well-maintained sheds, the home, the land. The groomed horse. 


“It’s a nice clean place you got here. I’m sure it ain’t easy to part ways with it.”


“I go back in forth, I suppose. I can’t stay here but that don’t mean I won’t miss it. It’s been our trade and well-being for decades. But, like anything, changes happen and events occur in one’s life. Often unforeseen.” She responded.


The ranch widow told the young man about the tragedy that had forsaken her. How her husband had died unexpectedly. The young man wondered, at first, why she would share the story of her husband with him. Then she said that she did not feel that the horse was responsible for her husband’s death nor was the sudden rain storm. She told the young man that such a tragedy can strike at any time and any place without warning or reasoning. She said that for the death of her husband, like all tragedies, no one thing was to blame and usually to some extent every man before them was culpable. Her family and her grandparents and their ancestors and native American Indians before all of them had been attempting to conquer this land and tame its creatures and she said that tragedy and death were inevitable along the way. She told the young man this so that he would not fear that the purchase of her dead husband’s horse would ultimately lead to his own collapse. There was no need for panic. After a moment of quietness, the young man looked up at the sky and the circling buzzards. 


“Well, I best be gettin’ on then, ma’am. I truly appreciate the horse.” He reached into his worn jeans and grabbed the wad of cash he saved for just an occasion and handed it to the widow. He felt not the need to squabble over the price of the horse.


“May you and this horse be blessed, young man.” She said.


The young man climbed onto the horse, already saddled and buckled tight, and rode it out of the stable pen. The woman reached over and pulled the gate shut but remained looking at the man on the horse as he moved toward the front of the ranch. 


“He answers to Rey, by the way.” She called out. The young man turned and tipped his hat and road on.


The horse belonged not to the ranch or to the young man but rather to the eternal barter of men. The horse’s time with the young man was finite and eventually it would be exchanged to that of another and another until eventually its last trade occurred with that of god and the horse returned to dust.


_________


When he reached the open pasture, the young man stepped out of the cab and walked back to the double trailer and pulled the latch open. He untied the horse free and climbed onto the saddle when he was in the open desert. They moved together toward a low creek bottom. In the distance, a cracking thunder shot across the plain for which there was no lightning that neither the man or the horse saw. Then, it began to rain.

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