When Hoboes Have Reasons

Illustration by Chet Phillips

Illustration by Chet Phillips

Mangy. That’s how I felt and how he looked, sitting there beside the road with the hot Mojave sun beating down. He’d been there since morning. I passed him while delivering two yearlings to a Thorobred farm in Lone Pine. He hadn’t budged an inch since. One of the truck’s features wasn’t air conditioning — who could afford it? — so the windows were down. I rolled to a stop and yelled for him to get in. Agile, he leaped into the back without a sound.

There was water in the empty trailer. I poured some in a bucket and watched. He was ever so polite, lapping at it slowly despite the scorching heat, stopping every few minutes to gaze back at me. Wouldn’t let me touch him though, rolling over and cowering. Okay. If those were the rules, I didn’t blame him. Those sores were gnarly and painful. I shoved the hay bales around a bit, making room for him right behind the cab. An Aussie, purebred by the look of him, although he was big. “What’s your name, huh? Blue? That’s what most cowboys call their blue dog.”

He watched, wary, silent, willing to go with me simply because there weren’t any choices, other than dying of sunburn and thirst. We stopped on the way and bought a bag full of hamburgers, not the best food for a dog, but he didn’t complain. When the truck finally stopped beside the barn, he was gone. Just like that. One minute, there; the next, vanished. I was pretty sure he was in the pickup when I pulled into the drive, but there were no guarantees he’d be around by morning. Oh, well, he was better off than before, with water and plenty of cover. I poured a bowlful of dog chow and left him to find it.

I never heard him bark, never saw him, until a few days later when the Quarter mare escaped. My own Australian Shepherds, young as they were, couldn’t corral her. I knew it before they started but watched their gallant efforts with a smile. They had the desire, if only I could muster up enough know-how to teach them. Like a flash, he passed them, first heading that old bay biddy, then heeling her, then back at her head, aggravating her until she chased him into the pen. As soon as she was inside, he scooted under the fence. By the time I got the gate latched, he was invisible once more. Penny and Cindy gave no clues, sitting at my heels just as proud as if they had done it themselves. They never looked around, never gave his hiding place away.

It took a bit of time, but I did manage to flush him out. A bit more time and he let me touch him. By then, his coat was growing back, some of the sores healed. I coated the others with medicine, watching them, day by day, until they were gone. Never once did he whimper, never offered to bite. That’s the way you do when you’ve been abused: no use howling, no use fighting back. Things just got worse that way. I tried to be gentle. He tried to endure.

It became a silent understanding. If I needed him, I only had to call. He was there in seconds, making sense out of my hand signals and whistles. One horse or the whole herd, he’d put them where I needed them. He tolerated the pups, letting them make their own mistakes and cleaning up after them. Only once did he bite a horse and then only after it kicked Penny, sending her yowling under the house. She was back before long, still wanting to join in the fun. That horse never kicked again.

If Looks Could Kill by Tim Cox

If Looks Could Kill by Tim Cox

Then the sorrel mare came , smart, catty on her feet, true cutting horse material, except she kept throwing herself down. Put a halter on. Down she went. Brushed her. Down she went. I called her owner, told him it was a waste of my time and his money. Tied her to the snubbing post while I waited for her trailer ride home. The snubbing post was wrapped in tires and had a couple of inner tubes for tying . She set back, wrenching hard at the halter, her body writhing, in anger or fear or perhaps even madness. The tubes stretched longer and longer, as she struggled backwards. I yelled, but it was futile. She no more listened to me than to the whispers on the wind. As those tubes stretched thinner and thinner, I couldn’t bear to look, imagining them snapping and hitting her full in the face.

The danger never crossed her mind, until her hooves hit mud. At first, she just skidded forward. Then, as the tubes regained their strength, she was flung forward like a stone out of a sling shot. Whoomp! She hit the post dead on and dropped. She surely was dying, laying there twitching all over. Blue didn’t like me afraid, I guess, because he grabbed her tail and wrung it. She squealed and leaped straight up, landing all a quiver but not wanting to lay down again. She stood quietly, without anymore nonsense, until her owner arrived. From the sweating she was doing, he thought I’d given her one last work, but honesty made me tell him she might have a concussion. He allowed as to how he’d take care of it, and they were gone. He’d promised the next stop would be the vet, but I figured the final destination would be an auction house. As the rig disappeared from view, I turned and found Blue, sitting at the top of the hill. I could’ve sworn he was grinning.

Blue sat next to me on the porch that evening. Jeff was gone. Funny. I hadn’t thought about it before. It was either Blue or Jeff, never both. I wondered if he was afraid of all men, or just Jeff. Either way, he’d be wise. I carried some bruises of my own from time to time, and they weren’t inflicted by horses. Blue seemed to know where my thoughts were going. He snuggled up close and kept me company until headlights hit the driveway. I wondered if he ever heard me cry.

We spent a lot of time together, after that. He’d follow me down to the beach, where I swam the horses each morning. He took to frolicking in the waves, although he refused to chase the driftwood I tossed. We’d watch the surfers and think of happier times. The occasional beach bum wandered by, an attractive sight in more ways then one. It intrigued me how they could be so free. I wondered if I could survive like that.

It was the horses. The reason I stayed, I mean. How could I just leave? They gave me sustenance, kept me going, even on mornings when it was more than the air that was chilly. Jeff left each morning, but I never knew when he’d cruise back by, checking to see if I was alone. Once I’d caught him spying on me on the back trails, as if I would’ve had a secret tryst amid the nettles and poison ivy. He’d come home with lipstick on his face, and then the wars would begin. Not me. Never me. I never questioned him, not wanting the fight. Guess his cheating wasn’t acceptable, even to himself, because he’d jump all over me, accusing me of things he’d done.

Fresh Mounts by Tim Cox

Fresh Mounts by Tim Cox

Blue was different when that happened. Always silent, he’d be sullen, looking furtive as we worked, licking at my bruises when he got the chance. Many nights we spent in the barn, huddled together for warmth, waiting to hear the roar of the engine as Jeff lurched out of the drive not long after dawn. I loved dawn in the barn, with the horses whickering softly, banging impatiently on the stall doors or rattling their feed buckets. They’d be quieter after I fed, but I could still hear the soft grind of chewing teeth and straw rustling under their hooves as their noses shoved the hay stems out of the way, looking for grain.

It never lasted. The sun would climb higher. Horses, pups, Blue and I would work hard, enjoying ourselves despite the sweat and aching muscles. But nightfall inevitably came, along with the sound of the pickup returning. Everyone tensed up then, hating his taunting stride as he came into the light of the aisle way. Tonight, it was worse than usual. A paint horse had kicked just as Jeff was tacking on a shoe, slicing his cheek with both the hoof’s ragged edge and the dangling nail. No doubt it would scar. That wasn’t the way to make someone happy, especially someone who loved his mirror as much as Jeff. He wouldn’t have hit the gelding, with the owner standing right there. Blue and the pups melted away. I wasn’t so lucky. The stalls weren’t clean enough. Why wasn’t the three year old sold yet? Dinner wasn’t on the table.

Our table never did see dinner that night. When Jeff lashed out, I ducked and hid, but Blue attacked, going for boot heels and getting a mouthful of jeans. Blue clung tight while Jeff kicked and staggered, desperately hopping on one foot, no match for the angry gray weight which finally brought him crashing down. Grabbing a nearby halter, Jeff swung wildly but empty air was all he hit. Blue’s teeth found Jeff’s hand, wringing it hard, and Jeff squealed just like that sorrel mare. Blue dodged free, stopping between Jeff and I, growling and barking. His message was clear. Jeff stood up, wiping blood on his shirt, his eyes filled with hate. I could see him trying to find me in the gloomy recesses. His voice shook with the rage his body didn’t dare express. “If that cur isn’t gone by morning, I’m gonna shoot him.”

We didn’t spend the night in the barn. We spent it on the beach, warmed by a beach bum’s fire, swiftly learning how to survive on the road. The whiskered gentleman gazed out at the foaming tide and decided he’d been in one place about long enough. He started packing his car, making it clear there was room for us. I knew what was waiting at home, yet I was scared to get in. Blue didn’t hesitate.

I thought back to the first time I saw Blue. He’d been brave, running away on his own, despite the heat, despite the desert, trusting to luck and the kindness of a stranger. At least, I wasn’t alone. Blue was there, sitting between Whiskers and I, growling out the rules. I’d barely closed the door when we were flying up the coast highway, which ran all the way back to my childhood home. Once there, my brothers would come back for the others I loved. I could only pray the pups and the horses would be all right until then.

Honored with a first place in the American Kennel Club (AKC) Gazette 1999 Fiction contest, first place in the short fiction category of the 1999 Dog Writers of America Association (DWAA) Annual Awards and the DWAA 1999 President’s Award: “The Best of the Best.” 850 entries

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