In darkness and pain he trembled. Unable to walk, to do more than stumble, his right foreleg hung useless and unbearing. In the headlight beams there was little to tell of his injuries, lost to shadow and his own darkness. The pain, still, was obvious. Horses get drawn with pain, an expressive clinging of skin to muscle and muscle to the bone. Nothing is lost in their large eyes, unless they want it to be. Approaching him, slowly, hand out, his eyes told stories I did not want to hear. He reached out with his head, and his lips nibbled at my fingers. He was soft, and sweet. And I had no help, no real comfort for him. It was late, and I was on the road.
That was then. Now in the cool morning, the extent of the shattered shoulder is obvious. The flies have begun to torment him, as he stands too weak to flick his tail. Too drawn and pained to twitch his skin. I approach again with my hand out, and he moves only a little. Brushing his face and neck I talk to him softly, and below his vision I pass the gun from my left hand to my right. I hold it against the back of my thigh, and pull the hammer to the rear where it clicks. He moves away from the metallic, mechanical, noise and I move with him. Stilling him, I touch and stroke with my left hand, as I whisper. The words are for me, their softness for him. I brush the hair of his mane from the top of his head, scratching softly at the fly bites. I can see the white blaze of his forehead clearly now and my fingers linger on it for a moment. He breathes steadily and lowers his head just slightly. There is no time but now, and any greater amount of now will only draw out his agony.
There is a stillness after gunfire as the world comes to life again. The moment after the shot nothing has moved save the hand in recoil. It too is frozen, for an instant in waiting, before sound and motion, like water drawn away from a shore, come rushing back. In that rush of birds cries and fluttering wings, he falls. He goes down straight, legs buckling to lay him into his own dragging tracks, a great weight upon the earth. The body, so many long milliseconds dead, tenses and convulses briefly and stops, then with the stillness comes blood. Everything relaxes and pours out, upon the dust etched with agony.
The strict facts are simple enough, but their meaning depends on things impossible to relate. Experience is the ancient flood, tearing new canyons and river bottoms, and like younger waters we are destined to run the course it shapes. This is no different. This story, as all killing stories do, runs deeper than the killing.
The horse had been ridden at a gallop through a rat den, his leg dropping into the pit, loading his shoulder until it came apart. His rider, a weekender in the backcountry, had left him near the water and gone back to town too much a coward to make it right. Three days the horse had stood, alone and without food, before I drove past and saw him.
The rider is the next generation of a family I've known all my life. The old men of the family, those who were old when I was born, helped raise me. In the silent teaching of action they gave me the gift of an older way. I came up among them tougher and better honed than their own sons and actual grandsons. Those younger man all products of towns and rejection of the old ways.
It is far too late for old men. The world moves on, and they begin to fail. There are only a few left, of all the good ones I've known. Those who are still alive so rarely come to the ranch country, leaving it for their descendants, who take it only for a playground. Those descendants who don't have what it takes. Whose macho falls away to cowardice when it really matters. Who commit evils and sins that their fathers would have found unthinkable. Their fathers who fought and killed, drank and whored, but never once shied away from a thing for the hardness of it.
If there is ever a final judgment, I'll stand with the old men I've known. We'll pass a bottle, and watch as it all goes down.