Two words no young man wants to hear. When you're still growing into manhood any reminder that you haven’t yet arrived hurts. When your maturity or competency is called into question you get angry—defensive. And most of the time, there is nothing to be gained from the charge, well-intentioned or not.
But every once in a while, the command to grow up could be exactly what you needed to accept the call and crossover the threshold, if it's the right person who said it.
Roberto Ruiz Hidalgo was not tall, but in my memory, he stood seven-foot-high, maybe eight. His shoulders were broad and his back lean. When he worked his muscles rippled beneath his sweat like the thighs of his prized stallion. I don't remember the clothes he wore, but I remember his hat. He never went anywhere without it. It was dark brown leather, firm, and curved over his face just enough to make him appear elusive. His eyes were always in shadow, so I could never read him—never knew what mood he was in, or how he felt about me.
And his opinion of me mattered.
I was eighteen, in a foreign country, a guest in the home of a stranger who was kind enough to offer me a room in exchange for my help in the stables. He was a man well respected by the locals (Ticos). Roberto had a contract with Tabacon, a luxury hot springs resort secluded in forested hills above the town. Guests would sign up for a guided horseback riding tour to a pristine 230-foot waterfall that fed a crystal clear swimming hole in the river.
The tour was incredible. It began in town; you'd trot along smooth river-stone streets in the slow ascent towards the hills. Halfway up, Roberto would signal his backup riders–me sometimes, or his sons–with that strange, almost tribal sounding, whistle. The sound carried far, and it always trilled back eerily, sometimes followed by the deep guttural reply of a howler monkey, but the signal was for the horses, not me. It was their cue to move to the side of the road and wait for Roberto to open the barbed wire gate to the yucca farm. The people who farmed the land didn’t seem to mind the path his daily tours beat into the grass and soil along the machete flower “living fences”.
Beyond the yucca farm, the route ventured through a broad shallow river, then cut a narrow line through the jungle, until, at last, the riders emerged at the waterfall.
The waterfall was spectacular, but for horse lovers, the farmland was a favorite part of the trip. It was here, in the open and level ground of “la finca” that Roberto would encourage the experienced riders to let the horses run. Something the horses had become accustomed to doing during this stretch of the tour, and, as it seemed to me, something they looked forward to.
La finca was my favorite part of the trip too. Mostly because of the view. In the distance, peeking out from behind dense jungle-covered mountains, Arenal, one of the world's most iconically conal volcanoes, thundered endlessly, breathing smoke into the air. It was picturesque and foreboding. It made me feel like a true cowboy. And it beat working the stables any day, brushing mud and mierda off horses wasn’t all that bad, but the trail, that was life. Meaning. The thing I sought in Costa Rica, I found on those trails. So every time he asked me to trade the shovel for a saddle, I’d feel like I was a hero–called to action–and I’d happily cross the threshold.
Cresting the hill on the farm was like seizing the sword. I’d look upon the fiery mountain with awe, and feel as though I was in the right place, aligned with my calling. And sometimes, on the evening tours, it would taunt me, frothing magma from its glowing maw, daring me and my steed to press on. And it was all wonderful, and exhilarating, and fulfilling, that is, until the day la finca failed me–or rather I failed it.
Beyond the rows of yucca, a river cut a line through the valley—on one side the farm, —on the other, wilderness, hidden in the shadows of the canopy. One morning, during a downpour, the hill that descended towards the river became slick with thick clingy mud. As we crossed the river, the mud from the hooves of a half dozen horses, and the sediment kicked up by their weight, churned the water until it was no longer transparent.
A horse neighed.
The sound triggered nothing in me. At the time I did not recognize it for the uneasy nervous whine that it was. I didn’t even look in the horse’s direction until I heard a woman yelp. The horse was rearing, or trying to, yanking his head upwards, trying tirelessly to dislodge his leg from something that laid hold of it beneath the murky water. I vaulted off my horse immediately and led him to a fence post on the edge of the stream. I fumbled with the ropes, trying to recall the knot Roberto taught me. I glanced at the horse again, he was hysterical now, and the woman was barely hanging on. Atop the muddy hill, Roberto, perched like a hawk, looked back at the farm ushering along the stragglers of the group.
“Uh, Roberto!” I yelled, but he couldn’t hear me over the rain. “Hold on!” I yelled to the woman. “Coming!” I fought to secure the horse, throwing the end of the line through my loop, and yanked. But then it unraveled—like God damn magic–it just unraveled. The woman screamed again, and I heard her fall, the water was shallow and something on her body smacked a river rock so hard it struck like lightning in the storm.
I tried to scream–louder this time, but I winced as a heavy hoof smashed the stone only inches from the woman’s prone body, and the words caught in my throat. Then I saw Roberto–charging down the muddy slope, pinning his hat to his head with one hand–reins clenched behind the white knuckles of the other.
I forsook the knot. I wrapped the rope around the post like I was applying gauze, and wove the end around itself in do discernable pattern—anything to get to the woman’s aid. But by the time I looked up, Roberto was already beside her, helping her to her feet. His horse was tied to the fence, secured by a bowline knot, with all the slack drawn up in the quick release loops he’d shown me a dozen times.
He looked up at me, and despite the overcast gloom, and the shade of his leather hat, I knew he was disappointed in me. I felt it. And just like that, everything I thought I loved about the trail, the yucca farm, the forest, that damned volcano, became a reminder of my failure.
After guiding the woman to the shoreline, Roberto approached the horse, shushing it as he did. He reach down, and with one quick jerk dislodged a tangled section of wire fencing that was concealed beneath the dirty water. In an instant, the horse was fine.
Moments later, Roberto approached me. I knew there would be no return with the elixir that day.
“Go home.” He said.
My stomach sank. He said it with such finality and force that it carried the words along the rails of meaning as far as they could go. I looked up at him, searching for his eyes beneath the brim of that leather hat. Did he mean ‘home’? As in ‘go back to your home’—to America? I was defeated, I felt so ashamed. I wondered if he wanted me to ride Pinto back or just walk– if he even trusted me with one of his horses anymore.
That night a war broke out between us.
“Grow up.” He said. He accused me of being “carried around” by my parents so much that I didn’t know how to walk on my own. He said I was a child in an eighteen-year-old body.
I was so young then, naive, undisciplined, he might have been right about me, but I wasn’t coddled, wasn’t irresponsible. And so I told him so, in an outburst that was louder than it needed to be,
“So I don’t know how to tie the God damn knot! I wasn’t raised a cowboy like you, Roberto!”
He stiffened, “No. No, you’re no cowboy. Not a cowboy at all.”
And somehow, more than anything else he could say, this hurt. Because I wanted to be one, because I was just starting to believe that I was one, and every time I sat on the saddle I bought into the lie a little more. Each time I crested the hill I felt like I was a little closer to becoming a true cowboy–a man, like him.
I wouldn’t ride anymore after that. I stayed in the stables, always with some more important chore I needed to do for the horses. I had to cut more grass, or clean off the saddles, or brush down his favorite horse Tata– clean out the water barrels. Even when I saw that he genuinely wanted me to come, I wouldn’t.
And each morning, after he rode off with his group, bound for the falls, I’d practice my knots. I’d fetch a red striped rope I kept tucked between the cushions in my bed, throw it up over the nearest fence post, and tie, untie and tie again. In less than two weeks, my muscle memory was so attuned to the motion, I longed for the opportunity to prove myself to him. If he’d just give me one more chance.
But he did, and I never took it.
Every morning, when the tourist gathered around the stables, he’d whistle to me as he was putting the bridle on his horse. He’d frown and jut his jaw out towards Pinto. But the more I wanted his approval, the more I was afraid of failing if I tried. So after I’d mastered tying knots, I took up practicing with the lasso. Pinto wasn’t keen on my new hobby, he became my practice dummy after the fencepost became too boring a target, but he obliged patiently.
The practice didn’t disperse my fear though. Instead of riding, I’d go cut some sugarcane for the horses as a treat or scrape manure from the concrete paths.
During those weeks I excelled at everything I set my mind to. In the morning, I disciplined myself, determined to have my parcel of African Star Grass loaded in the trailer before his sons had even wiped the sleep from their eyes. I’d wake up before that first howler monkey’s croak echoed in the valley, before the mist lifted from the mountains–when the light was merely ambient and beamed on nothing but weightless dew.
Yet still. I could not bring myself to ride again.
Then, one night, as I laid there in the interim, halfway between sleep and wakefulness, noises wove themselves into my dreams seamlessly and lulled me like a sound machine of the jungle. A distant local laughing from his porch, mosquitos complaining that I had draped too fine a bug-net over my bed, the ching of some cyclist on his way back from the bar—or to it, the neighing of a horse by the stalls, and all the sounds melded together like the intentional composition of a hypnotherapist’s sleep track.
But then I heard it again. The neighing. An uneasy sound. The horse was nervous and it roused me immediately, triggering a heightened awareness. I sprinted through the back door and activated the switch on the floodlight that faced the gate to the stables. Yellow beams burned through the shadows. When my eyes adjusted I saw two forms: A pony, a snow-white mare on my side of the fence, who, as of the night before, was swollen with the offspring of Roberto’s prized black stallion, the giant quarter horse on the other side of the fence. Only, the stallion’s silhouette was odd. I squinted and stepped forward. And then I understood.
“Roberto!” I called. But I didn't wait for him, I sprinted.
The stallion held his newborn son high in the air, its spine clenched in his jaw. The pony was hysterical, kicking and neighing, and slamming herself against the gates to save her baby. She was going to hurt herself.
It was all so loud. How could Roberto sleep through–
But before I’d finished the thought I saw the outline of his hat closing the gap between the back door of the house and the stables. Then I realized that all he wore was the hat– and a pair of boxers. He leaped over the gate without touching it, landing in the mud. Then he leaped again, this time towards the stallion, with his fist reared. It saw him, flinched, and tried to react but somehow in the dark, in the air, half-dressed, half-awake, Roberto decked the stallion with perfect precision and power, directly in the soft spot just behind the teeth.
I don’t know what happened after that. I don’t know if the stallion just set the newborn down, or if he dropped the little guy. I was busy trying to calm down the pony, and as soon as Roberto put the foal in a separate pen to isolate it from the stallion, she ran. She hauled ass into the city so fast I knew she’d get herself injured.
“We gotta stop her!” I yelled.
Roberto dashed to his Jeep and fired up the engine. I hopped into the passenger seat and Roberto threw a coiled lasso on my lap. I looked at him, but he said nothing. He slammed the gas pedal, pebbles plinked against the metal gate behind us.
The hilly streets were unlit and uneven, but Roberto's hands danced with the shifter expertly. We slalomed smoothly up the hill dodging potholes.
“Where do you think she’s going?” I asked.
“Open your window.” He said.
“Okay.” I cranked it down.
“She’s going to the old pasture– the farm.”
“The old pasture?”
“I sold it a year ago. She thinks it’s still home.”
As we came around a bend my eyes caught something white in the headlights.
“There,” I shouted, pointing to the pale mass in the ditch ahead.
“Now!” Roberto commanded.
I had to move quickly. I snatched up the lasso and smashed open the door. Roberto slowed just enough for me to exit then gunned it the moment I stepped out. He went further up the road to the trailhead for the yucca farm path. He was trying to cut her off.
“Come on girl,” I whispered, raising the rope above my head, “calm down.”
She pointed her ears back and hissed. I whirled the lasso once to get momentum, then hurled it towards her head, but she kicked away. A thick clump of mud wailed into my gut nearly knocking the breath out of me. I sucked in the air, hunched over my stomach, and felt the rope go slack. I missed.
I bolted after her. Without the headlights, I could barely see her pale form disappearing behind the machete flower trees. I lost her in the darkness for a moment, but I followed the sound of hooves pounding along the fence to my right. The ground was uneven, pocked with hundreds of hoof depressions. I crossed over the horse path then ran parallel to it along the smoother soil of the yucca rows, pummeling the ground with my feet, ignoring the cassava leaves that cut into my thighs. The sound of her gallop faded but she followed the normal path, as if reliving some old memory from before she became pregnant and removed from service.
Light blazed onto the field and an engine roared behind me. Roberto’s jeep bounced across the craters, jetting mud into the sky behind it.
“Get in.” He yelled.
Her white coat flashed in the headlights for a split second, then disappeared again as she dipped beyond the hill.
“Boy, she’s booking it isn’t she?” I said.
“Be ready.” He said.
The jeep jostled me, slamming me against the ceiling and back into the seat again.
“Through the window.” He said.
I looked at him. “While we’re moving?”
“Be ready.” He said again, tightening his grip on the steering wheel.
I climbed up and sat on the frame of the window, keeping my center of gravity as close to the jeep as possible.
Then I saw it—the blazing orange peak of Volcan Arenal, spewing fire into the night sky.
When we crossed over the hill and came down the backside, the pony’s tail flailed in the darkness like a white flag. We were gaining on her. I clenched my fists around the lasso. Roberto managed to get us next to her but she didn’t look at us, she simply pressed into her stride harder.
I perched myself ideally on the window frame and swung the rope above me, building momentum, and picturing Pinto in her place, compliant—patient.
I bit down on my lip. I hurled the lasso into the air. I prayed.
And I felt tension in the line.
It wasn’t what he wore the next morning that stands out in my memory, but what he didn’t wear. As I shoveled down my second bowl of gallo pinto, I felt a heavy hand crash into the crown of my head. Cool shade fell over my brow. I smiled, smelling the leather he plopped over my skull. I looked up, his hair clung to his head like a sweaty roman wreath. He looked at me, and for the first time, I could see his eyes directly in the light.
“Turns out, you are a cowboy after all.”
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Okay- dude.. I think the lack of explanation in the first story I read by you(your second one posted), was just, luck. This one has good explanation and I'm just, awestruck. I, personally, love horses, so that may be why I love it so much. But I do. Wonderful job writing this. Especially the way you wrote the prompt. You actively showed the change throughout the story- I love that. I heavily enjoyed this read.
Thanks again Leo. This one was actually my first attempt at creative nonfiction. Of course there was a little embellishments here and there ;), And I also changed the name of the man. But for the most part, this was an accurate retelling of one of my more meaningful experiences in life. As soon as I finished it I had my wife read it, and she was like, "it's too long, you got 4000 words here. Reedsy is 3000 Max." I learned more about the editing process with this story than any of my others. Cutting 25% of the story was hard to do, I wante...
Your first attempt? This is glorious! I love it. Stories based on actual events, especially those the author have experienced, are so unique and wonderful. I understand the struggle of cutting down on a story or something, it's a little hurtful, but in the end you see the piece, and how wonderful it is either way.
Okay, I adore everything about this story...except the opening paragraph. I think you can do without the entire thing. I really only got pulled in at the start of the second paragraph when you jumped right into describing Roberto. And after that, AMAZING. A powerful and striking story about personal failings, second chances, and how censure hurts waaaay worse when it comes from the people we admire. The ending made me tear up--another perfect conclusion.
Hey! Thanks, Robin! I didn't really like that first paragraph either, but I couldn't figure out what to do. lol. When I finished I hadn't realized it was 4000 worlds, so I had to cut a lot out. I completely removed Roberto's two sons, and other scenes, that, to me felt relevant, but my wife helped me recognize were not crucial to the story. That first paragraph was difficult, I rewrote it several times. In fact, the "grow up" prompt actually propelled me through several paragraphs before I hit the paragraph about Roberto, and that's when I ...
I loved this line: “peeking out from behind dense jungle-covered mountains, Arenal, one of the world's most iconically conal volcanoes, thundered endlessly, breathing smoke into the air.” Very evocative—makes me want to visit Costa Rica ;)