When You Shoot Horses
by Jay Goldmark
On a family ranch, you have to earn your belonging. This is touchy territory, but for now, let’s just say that my brother and I committed ourselves back here to taking on this ranch for another generation. We made commitments, took on risk, I’m raising a family. My brother, similarly, took on responsibilities. We’re talking the kind of work hours that most lawyers get put through before they’re up for partner — and now, like that, we’re partners: we belong to a place, whereas they — the lawyers — belong to a business, a building, an ethos, a money-generating thing, etc. What’s different on a ranch is how belonging connotes to a sense of place.
Out here your concerns get real basic: you keep your fences up and tight, you keep the cows on good grass, you put up enough hay for them to survive the long winters, and you keep the neighbors’ stock out.
We run about 200 cows and we move them around on horseback. There is a saying that goes something like, “You have cows so you can have horses,” which points to the nature of things on a ranch needing a purpose in order to exist. For example, take the one that assesses the worth of a man, probably at first glance: “He’s all hat and no cattle.”
When I first moved back, I did, at times, feel like I didn’t belong. I’d been away for six years at school, and the place had continued on without me. So why did I move back? Because farming is in your blood, it’s where you belong, it’s part of continuing the family tradition, because, as a hired hand once told me, most guys would give their left nut for half of what you have.
I often wonder whether I belong here. The question is part personal: is there something else I should be doing with my life? And part existential: what does it even mean to belong? Go ahead, use it in as many different circumstances as you can. In my life the word shows up all the time, as in we chased horses all morning and put the neighbor horses back where they belonged.
Here is how this one went: The fog was thick that morning when my brother hung the shotgun outside the Chevy as we closed in on three horses, their crescent-shaped rumps dipping and rising, pounding through the snow. I had the truck in 4-wheel drive, and the pedal floored in second gear. The sorrel mare in front feinted left then right, cutting across the pasture, with the other two horses right behind her. The gun boomed, the horses scattered, regrouped, then galloped off in another direction. We fishtailed through the snow and closed within forty feet of the horses before my brother had another good shot.
He was firing shells we used to shoot pigeons. Each shot sent a cloud of roughly fifty beebees toward the horses’ hides. It was hard to know at this range if the beebees were hitting the horses—but still, they were frightened, their shrill whinnies suggested as much. After a few more shots, the horses sped west, back toward the neighbor’s place. We chased after them anyway, wanting to teach them a lesson, which made the horses run faster and me drive more wildly after them. And somewhere in my head was also the feeling that maybe we were doing something wrong. But as the horses gained ground, they began looping back toward our cows—where we’d first started the chase. I picked an angle back to the herd that would cut them off before they reached the hay, and this time we were close enough to get in a few good shots at close range, and the horses arced away at a flat gallop. I tried to keep up, though the fog was making it hard to see. The smell of gunpowder and the heater’s warm air mixed in the cab as my brother emptied half a box of shells before I steered into a snowdrift that buried the front bumper. We watched the horses disappear into the fog. Then my brother and I dug the snow out from under the pickup and from around the tires.
At the house, I called the neighbors who lived a couple miles away, Evan and Maggie. While the phone rang, I wondered if the horses had returned already; if Evan or Maggie had seen their rumps, if they could see any wounds.
“Hello,” a deep and scratchy voice said. I panicked, not knowing if it was Evan or Maggie, who was a lifetime smoker and also had a throaty voice. My breath was stuck. An awkward silence passed.
“Hello?” the voice said again, sounding slightly agitated.
“Good morn’in, Evan.” I said this like I called to chat every morning.
“This is Maggie.”
Maggie’s coarse, charcoal-black hair hung halfway down her back. She was in her sixties, and I always thought of her as a pioneer woman. She and Evan owned several hundred acres, raised twenty or so cows, kept egg-laying chickens, a mess of turkeys that Maggie slaughtered before Thanksgiving and sold to the neighbors, and a few goats and sheep. She made cheese, spun wool into yarn, and wove blankets on a loom.
Maggie and I talked briefly about the weather before she handed the phone over to Evan. I told Evan that his horses were in with our cows and eating our hay. I didn’t add that to keep them from wandering he should corral them, or feed them more; nor did I elaborate on why his horses might be a little nervous around loud noises. But Evan didn’t seem worried about his horses.
“I noticed they wuz gone this morn’en,” he said almost to himself. “They’ll be back by nightfall,” he said, trailing off.
I told him that I chased the horses almost back to his fence before losing them in the fog. “I’ll stop by sometime,” I said. We hung up.
I had never seen Evan worked up about anything. When I used to drive to high school, I sometimes got behind his brown two-door Ford. Once, instead of flying by him, I slowed down to see what life was like at his speed. After a couple of miles I began to notice the birds flitting around on the rosehip bushes out in the pasture, the sharp rocks in the road, which I could avoid at these speeds, or a crow perched atop the nearby power line pole. My mind began to wander at a pleasant pace. For a little while, I thought Evan had life figured out. Then I realized I was going to be late for school.
Just listening to Evan talk was like following his truck down the road: right there over the phone, with his o-key-do-kee cadence, he had reminded me how slowly time could move. We had chased his horses faster than he’d ever driven to town. I wondered if we were taking ourselves too seriously, if we had unknowingly just crossed over a fine line. Maybe when you really belong to a place you know where this line is at all times. If you’re always having to guess where that ethical line is, it’s like walking into a room and immediately feeling like you don’t belong there. And how do we know that? I wondered.
My brother had coffee ready by the time I got off the phone. We sat at the kitchen table. I wanted to ease my guilt.
“You stayed away from their heads?” I asked him. He was sure he did, and he seemed less bothered about the whole thing than me.
“Do you think they’ll bleed?” I asked.
“The shell loads were too light,” he said. “You never drove close enough for me to really sting’em.” He was 23 years old but he said this like he was 50, as though he had been ranching all his life.
He dressed like our father—denim on denim—Wrangler shirt, leather belt, Levi jeans, which added to the illusion, along with the intense confidence in my brother’s blue eyes, that with matters concerning right and wrong, there was no room for debate.
We listened to the weather report on the radio. The barometer registered below thirty and was climbing. A high front was moving in from British Columbia, bringing with it an arctic air mass. Expect high winds out of the north. I remembered how the sorrel mare had raced across the snowfield. Her head was low and the tapered point of her nose craned forward. Her neck nearly parallel with the ground. Her hooves kicking up the snow. I had the engine revved and everything feeling animal-like as we had plowed into the drift and watched the horses dissolve into the fog until the last thing we saw was their tails frosted with ice, and then nothing.
The next morning my brother and I loaded the hay wagon and drove the tractor out to the cows. The sun was out and low on the eastern horizon. The sky gaining colors of blue, the flat, snowy plain losing that subtle salmon pink color of early morning. I drove the tractor along the road that traversed a knoll overlooking the cows. The horses were back. They were down there, practically in the middle of our cows, circled up and prancing around yesterday’s leftover hay, their necks held high as they seemed to guard their stolen bounty and bully our cows into submission.
“Sonsofbitches,” my brother muttered.
We drove slowly through the herd and several cows took a bite of hay from the round bales on the wagon. The cows squirmed and plowed through the snow behind us. Ahead the snow-covered nothingness, and yet I felt my small piece in it—working with my brother, the steady purring stream of the diesel engine, the repetition of feeding cows, in the taking care of them, really, in the repetition of growing up and returning to the same place—I would have drank whiskey if we had it.
I steered the tractor for a clean section of snow where I would unroll the bales. A long line of cows followed the wagon, their heads lazily swaying and dipping to the rhythm of their front feet. Our arrival shifted the horses’ mood. They calmed down and attempted to blend in, it seemed, by drooping their necks and nibbling the old hay.
“Sonsofbitches,” my brother said again, sounding exactly like our father, who short circuited when the neighbor’s stock got through the fence and grazed our grass—or much worse: ate the hay we spent the summer months cutting, baling, and hauling to the stack yard.
I was relieved to see there was no blood on the horses’ hindquarters or anything out of ordinary about their behavior, but they seemed arrogant and calm, which angered me. Why hadn’t they learned their lesson? My brother jumped out of the tractor and ran at them waving his hands above his head, “Goonyousonsofbitches, go on,” he yelled as they shied sideways and took off.
For some time we sat in the tractor and watched the horses streak through the deep snow, running with the same intensity they had when the pickup was after them, which made me think they thought this was all a game, as though they were no different than giddy school children testing the rules. I waited until they became tiny figures on the horizon before starting the tractor, as if their retreat was complete only if watched.
After we finished feeding, we got in the Chevy and drove down the county road to where the horses had disappeared from sight. On the other side of the ridge our land bordered the neighbors, and along this common fence were the horses, milling around in the snow. There was a barbed wire gate where the fence met the road, and I parked the truck over the cattle guard so they wouldn’t try to walk it. It was the closest I had gotten to them, their bodies shagged with winter hair and steaming in the crisp day. They wheezed and trotted nervously up and down the fence.
My brother walked in a wide half-circle around the horses until they were between him and me. Then I got out and opened the gate. My brother threw a few snow balls at the horses to get them moving. They saw the opening and ran through it while throwing a few bucks and farting. They were the neighbors’ problem now, I thought.
A few mornings later, my sister was visiting when we found our oldest mare, Summer, flat on the ice next to a round bale feeder. She had seen over 20 years on the ranch. We had both learned to ride on this gentle and relaxed sorrel horse that would often fall asleep when you were in the saddle. I figured she had been down since last night since I could barely get her legs to bend.
We worked on her for an hour, wedging straw underneath her side and straining to lift her. I lifted her neck; my sister pushed Summer’s rump. We managed to get the front legs underneath her, and we pushed and pulled until she was sitting up like a dog, her rump on the ice. She had been the pack horse for camping trips into the mountains, and now her front legs couldn’t hold her own weight. After a while, my sister and I wore out and Summer laid a side of her head back onto the ice, so that one eye could still peer up at us, a swirling amber-colored nebula floating in a dark sky. Nearby, a group of heifers munched hay. The sky was clear and frozen. We stroked Summer’s thick winter hair and praised her for everything she had done. My sister stayed with her and kept talking to her as I headed back to the shop for the gun.
Jay Goldmark earned an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University before returning to the family ranch. His writing has appeared in Paste and Jerry Magazine.
Featured image courtesy of Stewart Black.