Friday, December 12, 2014

The Last Ride of Man

After he adjusted the cinch, he once again inspected the bit in the horse's mouth.  The horse had a soft mouth and since the new owner would pick up the horse for transport tomorrow, it wouldn't do to bruise the horse's mouth on the last ride.

"Easy Man," he said as he inspected the gentle bit.  Yes, the horse's name was Man.  Everybody has heard of the man called Horse, but...

He climbed onto the back of Man and settled into the saddle.  He had sold the saddle, too.  It was old and he had cared for it a long time.  While part of him hated to part with it after all the long hours he had spent working saddle soap and mink oil into the supple leather--it really made no sense to keep a saddle if you were selling your last horse.

He had thought briefly about painting the saddle turquoise and selling it to some damn fool art gallery in Santa Fe.  Just last summer his wife had dragged him kicking and screaming to the row of galleries on Canyon Road, where each was intensely proud that its multi-million dollar adobe building was still on a gravel road.  Evidently, everyone was trying to ignore the fact that the trendy galleries in the 'City Different' were less than a mile from the state capitol building.

In one of the galleries, he had seen--with his own eyes--an old Tony Lama boot painted purple, with a cactus growing out of the top.  (And they had wanted $500 for it!)    He figured there had to be some damn fool Californian that would pay twice as much for a whole saddle!

He let Man make his own way down the long dirt road they had ridden so many times before.  It was only at the entrance to the large pecan orchard where he reined the tall horse off the beaten path and into the orchard.  He had gotten permission from the farmer to cut across the huge pecan farm.  Since this was his last ride on his own horse, he had planned to make it special--something he had never done before.

It was cool under the endless rows of pecan trees.  To insure maximum efficiency during irrigation, the  ground was as flat as a schoolmarm's chest.  He had heard that the owners used lasers to level the land, but he wasn't sure he believed that.

He had, however, seen the farm workers use something incredible.  This farm had a machine that drove up to the tree and grabbed the trunk with a large mechanical hand.  Then a giant net wrapped around the tree forming a huge funnel under the tree's branches.  Last of all, the mechanical hand shook the Bejeezus out of the tree, causing a gazillion pecans to fall into the funnel.  Within seconds, the net folded back up, the hand released the trunk, and the machine was driven to the next tree. 

He had never asked what this machine was called--he was afraid that it might be something mundane like 'Shaker' or 'Pecan Picker'.  He preferred to call it the Bejeezus Machine.  And he lusted for one. He had looked for one at every farm machinery auction for years without luck.  He didn't own a single pecan tree, but he really wanted to drive the Bejeezus Machine into town and shake the peewiddling crap out of the damn parking meters that were springing up like weeds all over town.

When he told his wife his vision of flying quarters, she'd accused him of being childish.  Maybe so, but he knew Paul Newman would approve.  (Well, at least Cool Hand Luke would!)

There were no Bejeezus Machines present in the orchard today, but he did ride fairly close to the site of old Fort Fillmore.  He reined in his horse and watched a couple of squirrels chase each other under the trees.  However the ground had been leveled and there was nothing left of the old fort.  Looking around, he wondered if old General George Pickett (famous for a failed charge at the Battle of Gettysburg), would recognize anything if he were to come back to the old fort he had once commanded.  Not much recognizable remained, however: the only thing that hadn't changed was the view of the Organ Mountains.

During the Civil War, the fort had been burned.  Despite having more men and a fort, when 300 Texans had attacked from Texas, Major Lynde had led his 500 men out into the desert after destroying the forts stores.  Evidently, some of his men had decided the best way to destroy the forts medicinal whiskey was to run it through their own systems first, so the soldiers filled their canteens with whiskey and marched out into the desert under the hot summer sun.  Baylor Pass is named for the Confederate commander who had captured those parched soldiers when they finally surrendered, at the site where they surrendered.  As far as the rider knew, not a damn thing had been named after Major Lynde.

He let the horse continue his way west, eventually reaching the Old El Paso highway and the railroad tracks that led north.  He turned the horse northward and let the horse walk on the cleared ground between the railroad tracks and the highway.

Within a few minutes, he heard the distant sound the Santa Fe train coming up from El Paso.  Turning the horse, he carefully moved as far away as possible from both the highway and the tracks.  Dismounting, he took a firm hold of Mans reins as the train came closer, than rumbled by.

Man was about as calm and gentle a horse as he had ever owned.  (Personally, he thought the horse had a general and fairly constant air of total boredom.)  He knew the horse was perfectly calm riding near traffic, even ignoring the occasional car horns honkingbut a train was another matter.  He had no intention of being on a horse that panicked and ran out into the middle of a highway.  Or onto a railroad track.

Perhaps, just to show him that he was being foolish, Man turned to watch the train for a few seconds, then lowered his head and began munching on the grass that grew along the fence line.  This calm disposition was why the new owner had wanted to buy the horse: he intended to use him to play polo in El Paso. 

The rider had never played cow pasture pool, and had no idea what made a good polo pony, but he personally doubted that Man would make a suitable mount.  However, that was the next owner's problem, not his.

Slowly, he was approaching the small village of Mesilla.  While the traffic increased slightly, it was not exactly what you would call busy.  It was midday, and the small town had attracted the usual tourists, who mixed with the few locals going about their business.

The tiny village had been founded after the Mexican American War, when Mexico had ceded most of the southwest to the United States.  Mexican citizens, not happy with suddenly becoming Americans, had crossed the Rio Grande and founded a new town in Mexico.   Mexico appreciated the patriotic gesture so much that seven years later, they had sold a parcel of land, the Gadsden Purchase, comprising the bottom strip of present day Arizona and New Mexico, to the United States.  So the citizens of Mesilla suddenly found themselves American citizens, again.

He guided the horse around the old plaza, and just for the fun of it, rode around all four sides of the plaza, before coming back to the El Patio bar.  By now, he was aware that the tourists gathered in the plaza were delighted to see someone on horseback.  He stopped Man in front of the hitching rail located at the bar and dismounted and tied the horse securely.  This hitching rail, his intended destination, was not only the only one left in the plaza, but as far as he knew, the only one left in New Mexico.  He was pretty sure there had to be another one somewhere, but he didn't know where it was.

He sat at a table near the window in the bar and ordered a beer and a burger.  And while he ate, he kept an eye on his horse, and thought about the plaza.  Right out there, they had signed the agreement for the Gadsden Purchase.  The plaza had seen the likes of Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa, and John Wesley Hardin.  Now, it was crowded with tourists buying genuine Wild West souvenirs from China. 

The Butterfield Stage and the Pony Express used to stop here.  The building at the corner had been the Confederate Capitol of Arizona--at least until the Union retook Mesilla.  Today, tour buses brought tourists to experience a little piece of the real West, each of them looking for John Wayne. 

Half the town depended on the tourist income and the other half were from California and had built "casitas" in trendy southwestern style.  Mesilla was one of those towns in which there were more houses and fewer people every year.  The town survived by selling a little of itself every day. 

He paid for his food and as he left the bar, there was a scattering of small kids admiring his horse.  Smiling at the kids, he untied his horse and swung up into the saddle.  As he did, he was acutely aware of having his picture taken.  It was time to head home and end the last ride.

"Excuse me," one of the tourists asked.  "Do you ride your horse into town often?"

He stared at the tourist for a long second as he thought about his answer.

"Every damn day, pilgrim."

1 comment:

  1. I remember my last ride well. I spent two years in the saddle five to six hours a day doing equestrian therapy with severely disturbed and abused kids. I had 20 horses and several of them were almost as disturbed as the kids - mostly the ponies. Ponies are nasty-tempered beasts for some reason. I was moving on to doing fund-raising and had turned the equestrian program over to a lovely Christian woman several years before. She invited me to try out one of the new saddles we'd had donated. She saddled up Cinnamon, my old regular mount and off we went through the woods along trails Cinnamon and I had cut - me mounted on her back swinging about her ears with a very sharp machete. She was one calm horse.

    I was riding that last day with a bunch of 8 to 12 year-olds that I knew for a fact could and did curse like Barbary pirates. One sprightly little thing just ahead of me pushed aside a branch and without warning released it so that it sprang back directly into my face. I uttered a colorful four letter word in surprise. It was not THE colorful word, but it was one I tried not to use in polite conversation.

    I could be excused for using this colorful word because I heard it from the kids probably 2 or 3 hundred times a day so that it was drilled into my subconscious. Turned out that was no excuse on Mrs. Dickens' trail rides.

    The little girl turned around and looked at me in shock. "We don't curse in front of the horses," she chided me. "They don't like it."

    Turns out Mrs. Dickens, the new equestrian director, had convinced the children that it hurt the feelings of the horses when they cursed in front of them. It was probably the only place on campus where the kids didn't curse. I adopted her no cursing philosophy with the team of kids I fielded in the local youth softball league. It worked great and you'd be surprised how much more you can get done if you can eliminate all the cursing.

    I apologized to the little girl and to her horse and mine and finished the ride much chastened. Turns out it was my last ride to this day. It's kind of sad because I really loved riding horses. They are wonderful creatures and next to dogs, the best friends man has ever had.

    Dang it, now I'm getting all misty!