Broken Horses

The horse tenses under me as I swing my leg over the saddle and take my mount. He twitches like an angry flash of lightning that makes my hair stand up. He knows I’m afraid. He turns to get me off balance but my father pulls him back around. He says, “Whoa, boy, whoa,” and holds the lead line tight. Bill Carson clips on a second line and I sink my weight down into the saddle, take hold of the horn with both hands. I’ve never felt so small. We’re trying to break this horse but he’s not having it.

“That’s right,” my father says. “You’re doing fine.”

Bill Carson and my dad are best friends. They grew up here in Parchfield and did everything together, a lot like me and my friend Eddie. That’s why everyone in town knows them and likes to come to the feedstore to hang out and trade stories. Dad says he and Bill Carson used to build cars together out of old parts and cruise around town. Mrs. Carson, who also went to school with them, says they used to drag race along the half-mile straightaway below the dam. Dad says they were always doing lame-brained things like that, dreaming of how to make their fortunes as racecar drivers. Mom told me Mrs. Carson got pregnant so Mr. Carson and she got married, and that’s when Dad and Mr. Carson got real jobs and gave up their racecar dreams. Bill Carson and his wife have four boys and a girl now.

My dad got a job delivering car parts in Baltimore, and that’s where he met my mom. After a year in the city they moved back here and bought our house and had me. Dad kept his job in the city, driving in every day, while Mr. Carson worked at the Sweetheart Cup factory. But after a while, Dad and Mr. Carson started planning how they could make money here in town, so when Mr. Johnson decided to sell the Feed and Seed Farm Supply, they pooled their money together and bought it.

It was because Mr. Johnson’s two sons went to Vietnam and never came back. He didn’t have anyone left to inherit the store, so he and his wife decided to move to Florida where Mr. Johnson opened up a tackle shop or something. That’s the story my dad and Bill Carson always tell.

Mom tells it a little different. She says, “We said goodbye to the sixties and rang in the new decade with a store your father hadn’t learned to run yet, a house that needed a new roof, and a six and four-year-old running around all over the place. But you were always trying to help. You were a regular little shopkeeper, sweeping up and stocking shelves and trying to lift things you couldn’t yet.”

That last part always makes me smile.

Anyway, Mom told me the store is a mixed blessing because it pays the bills but isn’t going to make anyone rich, and Dad and Mr. Carson spend all their time there trying to figure out new ways to make more money. To save paying anyone, Mr. Carson makes his older boys work there with him and my dad so I don’t really have to. Not yet anyway.

“Why do we need more money?” I asked.

“Because your brother’s doctor bills have us drowning in debt,” Mom said.

“Why does Colin need so many doctors?”

“They’re trying to fix what’s wrong with him.”

***

The air today smells like hot tar from the work the electric company is doing by the power lines up the road. It hangs heavy in the heat and makes it hard to breathe. Harder than normal.

The horse I’m sitting on, a sorrel-colored Quarter Horse, doesn’t like the smell either. He keeps snorting and snapping his head around like he’s trying to clear the stench from his nostrils.

I’m looking at my father trying to tell him I don’t think the horse is liking this and maybe we should switch back to the sacks of grain across the saddle while he gets used to the weight, but my father’s ignoring me. He’s talking to Mr. Carson and already counting the money this broken horse will give him.

“Two hundred cash,” he’s saying to Bill Carson, “and there’s two more coming in next week, a couple old driving horses the owner wants saddle broken.”

“That should be pretty easy,” Mr. Carson says. “If they’re harness broken already, getting them used to the saddle shouldn’t be too hard. A lot easier than this one, anyway.”

The horse shifts under my weight, turns toward the center of the pen where there’s room to buck.

“Exactly,” my father says.

The ground looks really far away. And hard.

I say, “Dad, maybe we should wait another day. I don’t feel good about this,” but he just ignores me and feeds out a little more rope, still talking to Bill Carson.

It’s like I’m invisible.

I turn invisible a lot.

Mostly it’s when Colin’s around and needs my parents’ attention, which happens all the time because he always needs attention, so I get ignored like I’m not even there. But the second someone can’t give him their full attention, I’m magically the first person they see, like I popped up out of nowhere, a genie from a bottle. Then it’s suddenly my job to watch him.

Like the day my father first came up with this plan.

***

We were at the feedstore on a Saturday and I was trying to talk to my dad, but he just kept ignoring me until Colin started making a fuss and then he said, “Sorry, H, I can’t listen to you right now with everything going on, but I tell you what, why don’t you walk to Tastee-Freez with your little brother and get him some ice cream or something, and when I’m done with work later, we can talk.”

I was asking him could he help me study for my math test on Monday because I couldn’t figure out my long division, but honestly it was okay he forgot or just didn’t hear me or maybe didn’t want to help me or whatever, because the second he said Tastee-Freez I was already thinking about ice cream and chili dogs.

“Get whatever you want,” he said. “Just stay on the sidewalk and stay out of the damn junkyard.” That last part was because of the time I climbed over the junkyard fence with Eddie and cut my leg. It was because we saw some old windows we wanted for the treehouse.

Then he handed me five dollars and told me to bring back the change.

We were supposed to go fishing that day because it was a Saturday, but Dad said he needed to stop by the feedstore first, and then he got busy helping Mr. Carson with stuff because Mr. Carson’s oldest boy was sick from drinking all night and never showed up for work. I heard Bill Carson tell this to my dad while I stood next to him completely invisible as Colin started pulling things off the shelves, Colin just being Colin, and my father started to lose his temper.

“Boys! Out. Now!” is all he said before grabbing Colin up and swinging him through the air toward the door. “Sorry, Bill, give me a second here,” he said.

Mr. Carson looked at me and smiled kinda sad then handed me a dollar bill. He winked at me as he tucked it into my hand, and said, “Get yourself something extra and take your time coming back, okay?”

So Colin and me walked down to the Tastee-Freez and of course Colin kept asking me about the damn ice cream, which I never should have mentioned.

“Vanilla cone, Harrison?”

“Yes, I’ll get you a vanilla cone. Come on.”

“Vanilla?”

“Yes, vanilla.”

“Vanilla, right Harrison?”

“I already told you. Don’t ask me again.”

“Hot dog, Harrison? Ketchup, no mustard.”

“You don’t need to tell me again.”

“No mustard.”

“I got it.”

“Hot dog, Harrison?”

“Yep.”

I tried to ignore him after that but he wouldn’t let up.

“Vanilla ice cream?”

I turned on him then.

“No, God damn it! I’m not buying you one now. You asked me too many times.”

Colin stopped walking. I could feel the scream coming but I didn’t care. I just kept going. But when he went off right there on the sidewalk, growling and biting his arm and stomping his foot in front of everyone, I ran back and grabbed him by the shirt and tugged him along behind me. He was starting to smack himself in the head but I held his arm.

“Fucking retard,” some man said, but I ignored him and pulled Colin behind me.

“Stop your fussing,” I told him. “I’ll get you the damn ice cream but please stop asking me about it.”

We walked the last block with him not saying anything. When we got to the door of the Tastee-Freez, I straightened his shirt and told him to pull his pants up so his underwear wasn’t showing.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sorry, Harrison.”

Someone opened the door and I could feel the air conditioning rushing out. A shiver ran down my back. Colin put his hand in front of his face and went all Cross-eyed Bill, flicking his tongue like he does when he’s nervous. His mouth was a slobbery mess.

“I’m having a hot dog!” he said to the people leaving. They took an extra wide step around us as they passed. It was times like that when I wondered what it would be like to have a normal brother, but Colin just smiled at them like this was the best day in the world.

“Hot dog, Harrison, right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll buy you two. Now come on.”

***

When we got back, my dad was telling Mr. Carson about his newest idea for making more money.

“What if we started breaking horses?”

“Are you serious?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“What the hell do we know about breaking horses?”

“We know enough. We can get two hundred dollars a horse plus boarding fees.”

“Who’s gonna pay us two hundred dollars when we’ve never done this before?” Mr. Carson asked.

“People.”

“People. Right.” Mr. Carson took off his John Deere hat. “Shit, Tom, your own damn horse isn’t even broken right.”

“Ach!” My father waved at the air like he was scaring off a bad thought. “That’s just because she’s too spirited. She’s got hot blood and a mean streak. She doesn’t count. Besides, Harrison rides her pretty well.”

“What the hell got you onto this idea?”

“Someone came in asking me if I knew anyone. An old timer with a horse he needs saddle broken. Said there’s a man over in Finksburg can do it but he charges three hundred dollars plus boarding fees. Per horse! Can you believe that? He says he’d be happy to pay two hundred plus board but that’s it. I figure with our not having to pay retail on the feed or hay, we can make a nice profit off just the boarding alone, and if we get good enough at breaking them we can turn it into a real side business. What do you say?”

“I don’t know, Tom. You really think it’ll work?”

“Why not? We both know enough to get going, and I’ve got those extra stalls in the barn. We could build it up slowly, learn as we go. If we got to just twelve a year, that would bring in some decent change. Will you help me?”

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea, Tom. Why don’t we stick with the tractor parts plan? We could be the main distributor in the county.”

My dad looked down at the floor then back at Mr. Carson.

“Bank said no to the loan.”

“Well, when the hell were you gonna tell me that?”

“I’m telling you now, Bill. We don’t have time to wait. I need the money. I really do.”

“Ah, shit,” Mr. Carson said. He looked at his boots and started rubbing something deep into the floorboards.

“God damn it, Tom. How?”

“How what?”

“How are we going to do it? When’s the last time you actually got up on an unbroken horse? Shit, when’s the first time?”

I’d never seen Bill Carson and my father argue before. They usually just told jokes and got their work done.

“Besides, we’re both too heavy. And too damn old. I’m not breaking my back over some extra money, not now. I think we should go back to the bank and try to change their minds.”

“So you won’t help me?” My father looked old suddenly.

“Tom, I…”

“I’ll do it,” I said.

I’d been thinking about what my mother said. About Colin’s doctor bills.

My father saw me standing next to him like I appeared out of nowhere, like I hadn’t been standing there the whole time trying to give him his change.

“I can do it,” I said. “I want to help.”

Colin was fussing quietly by the counter, trying to reach the blow pops behind the register.

Mr. Carson and my father looked at each other. Bill Carson shook his head. My father smiled.

“That a boy,” he said.

“I guess I’ll make some signs,” Mr. Carson said.

So that’s how we got started breaking horses.

My father talked to Frances’ brother at the county fairgrounds and Mr. Carson put up signs at all the auction yards plus the grocery store and the hardware. A week later we had the horse that needed breaking from the man my father first talked to. He was a beautiful stallion. Beautiful but skittish. He’d pull away anytime I came near him. I had to use sugar cubes to earn his trust. It took two weeks just to get him harness trained. And now I’m on top of him with my father and Mr. Carson leading us out into the center of the back paddock in the thick, tar-smelling heat with me not feeling right up here and the horse feeling every inch of my fear deep down in his bones.

***

My father and Bill Carson aren’t paying attention as we move out into the center of the paddock and they let out too much line, enough for me and the horse to both notice. The horse snaps his heads back with so much force I think he’s rearing up, so I rise up out of the saddle and now he’s definitely got me off balance. The other thing that happens, which no one notices at first, is the clasps on the lead lines break, probably because they’re old brass from the Civil War that my father collects and refurbishes but they’re brittle and sometimes break too easily. As the horse rears up for real now, I grip the saddle horn tightly because I don’t have any reins, and I squeeze my legs together as tight as I can to keep from falling off. Next, he drops his head and bucks and now I’m holding on with everything I have. My head snaps forward and back and every time the horse bucks I feel a shot of pain through my lower back until I don’t feel anything for a second except the air below me then a hard thump as I hit the ground.

“Shit!” My father runs over and picks me up from the dirt. “You’re okay, You’re okay,” he says.

It takes Bill Carson a few minutes to get the horse calm enough to clip on a new set of lead lines. I notice that these ones have shiny new clasps and I wonder why we didn’t start with those.

“All right let’s get you back up there,” my father says, and I almost can’t believe it.

“Why don’t we call it a day?” Mr. Carson says. “It looks like the boy’s had enough for now.”

“Nah, he’s okay,” my dad says, “aren’t you, H?”

I want to tell him No, I’m not okay, but there’s something about the way he says it that makes me afraid to tell him different.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Good. Now climb back up there and let’s get this done,” my father says.

But the second time he throws me, the horse just yanks his head up like my father and Mr. Carson aren’t even there. They can’t hold him.

The third time, I’m in the dirt before I can even get settled into the saddle, but this time I fall flat on my back. Hard. It takes me a minute to even stand up.

“You’ve got to hold on!” my father tells me.

“I’m trying!” I say.

“Try harder,” he says.

“Tom,” Bill Carson says.

“Let’s go!” my father says.

The fourth time is no different except my father is getting angry now, maybe at the horse and maybe at me, I don’t know which, and Mr. Carson is getting winded and sweaty and I can tell he’s done with all this.

I’m holding back tears but my father just ignores me.

“I think we’re through here, Tom,” Mr. Carson says.

“We’re not done yet, Bill,” my father argues. “Harrison, get back up on the horse.”

Bill Carson tells him, “You’re gonna get the boy killed, Tom. Or worse.”

“I don’t want to,” I tell him, but the look on his face makes me more afraid of him now than I’ve ever been in my life.

“Get back up on that horse,” he says.

My knees are shaking.

“For God’s sake, Tom, it’s over!”

Something shifts inside my father. There’s a look on his face I can’t understand.

“Please don’t quit on me,” he says. “Don’t give up. Just one more try and we’re done. I promise. We just have to keep you up there long enough that the son of a bitch doesn’t think he’s won. Then tomorrow will be easier.”

“Okay, I’ll try,” I tell him.

“You got one more in you?

“I can do it, Dad.”

My father smiles.

“You sure you’re up to this?” Mr. Carson asks me.

“Yeah.”

“Just one more,” my father says. “This is the one.”

“One more,” I tell him.

“Okay, then, okay. Last one. We’ll finish up here and come back tomorrow.”

My father holds the lead line tight. Mr. Carson cradles my left shin to help me reach the saddle horn then find the stirrup.

My father says, “I’m proud of you, H.”

I swing my right leg over the saddle, sit my weight back, and find the second stirrup. But this time, instead of bucking, the horse bolts. At first, my father is still holding the rope tightly. He’s dragged across the ground until he finally lets go and disappears behind us. Now the horse is running as fast as he can toward the railings I know he can’t jump. My father’s yelling something to me but I’m not listening. I’m looking out past the paddock to the edges of our land. I’m looking at all the trees hanging limp in the tar-soaked air. I’m wondering if I should hold on tight or just let go. I’m wondering if tomorrow really will be easier, and I’m wondering how many. How many broken horses to fix my brother.

 

Image: by Joel Zar, Pexels, licensed under CC 2.0.

Ciaran Cooper
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