This is Part 3 of 4, of Horse of Daydreams, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. For earlier Parts, click on the links below:
Horse Of Daydreams (Continued)
After that he began to take me up the mountain. It was the first time I’d ever been in any mountains—so this, too, took a lot of training. But this was training that I liked. I learned how to scramble up steep grades. Most important, I learned how to go back down a steep grade. That took some thinking and getting used to, for a flat-land plains horse like myself.
But up there on those ridges—on those peaks—amongst those pines—that was an experience like I’d never had before. I grew to love the mountains. To love the deep wild grass in the high mountain valleys. To admire the boulders, that offered so many different hiding spots. To appreciate the creeks, that always offered a cool drink of pure water. Nothing like the mossy barrel water back at the corral. I loved the mountains. I saw potential in the mountains. I saw potential for independence. Potential to no longer need that evening block of hay. The mountains offered more food than I could eat in a thousand lifetimes. There was a heaven-load of grass for the grazing just waiting for me up there.
And as I daydreamed about these mountains, I solved the big puzzle. I figured all I’d have to do to get to all that mountain grass, and end my dependence upon the hay, was—just escape from my master. So I took to my mountain training well, and learned the tricks fast. It was my hope that this way my master would take me up there often. And then one day maybe I could make a break and escape, and have all that green grass to myself.
I got good at picking my way along a hairline trail on the corniche of a cliff. Became an expert at maneuvering through stands of thick forest, careful not to scrape my master’s legs on the bark of trees. Developed a talent for turning around in tight spaces, where trails had a tendency to dead-end. In this way I became a mountain horse. A mountain horse well suited for mountain travel, and for my master’s intention.
Which was to hunt the bighorn sheep up there.
Thing was, my master didn’t know MY intention. Which was to escape. Escape, and spend the rest of my life living off the land in some high mountain valley. Where the grass was always green and plentiful. And where I could spend my time whiling away the hours, daydreaming and grazing. Grazing and daydreaming. No longer needing to earn a block of hay to live.
The thought of having all that time to just daydream, without ever being disturbed, set my heart to beating faster. I became more alert, more ready, more plotting and cunning. I became like any horse or other creature would become when it saw the opportunity to step into paradise. I became alive and deadly inside, like a wild animal.
Three seasons passed, and thrice my master had taken me bighorn sheep hunting. And each time I had gone with a plan to escape. And each time I had given up that plan when we got up on the mountain and into the thick of the wilderness. I would see an opportunity to escape, but then my heart would sink. A flood of doubts would overwhelm me. Doubts like, what would I do if I were to be attacked by wolves? How could I eat grass in the winter, when it was covered by ten feet of snow? What if my master recaptured me? What would he do to me? The dog dish, maybe.
Then I’d think of the corral, and life would seem so easy there. All I had to do was just stand around all day, and every evening I’d get thrown a block of hay. So easy. No questions asked. No doubts to my survival. Sure it was a pain-in-the-ass sometimes, when my master interrupted my daydreams and wanted to do something with me. But at least I was mostly happy.
And then thoughts of escape seemed silly. Why endure the hardships of wilderness life for the sake of a few extra daydreams, when I could have the easy corral life back at home, and still daydream almost any time I wanted? With these thoughts, I’d give up my escape plan, help my master get his sheep, and we’d both head home. With me tugging at the bit for that nice, cushy corral.
It was early spring when he took me bighorn sheep hunting for the fourth time. This was the time of year when the snow was melting. When the grass was crisp and fresh. When there was a fertile smell to the air that stirred up daydreaming thoughts that were deep and ancient. And when other thoughts, of escape, were moving strongly through my mind, as powerful as the winds of March. This time, on this hunt, I vowed, I would do it. I would escape, and to hell with my doubts. I would find a way to survive in the wilderness.
We hit the trail ponying a packhorse behind us. This packhorse was a new horse my master had acquired. He was trail-breaking it, getting it accustomed to the mountains, as I had become accustomed. But it still had a lot of bad habits, including the annoying habit of grabbing and munching chunks of grass off the edges of the trail. Lucky bastard. I felt jealous.
We took a ridge route, where the snow had all drifted off and travel was easier. This time of year the bighorns were heading back up the mountain, where the grass would be new, fresh, and just waiting for them to gobble. And my master knew a spot where the sheep always passed. And so there he planned to be waiting, too.
It was a very steep, rugged area. Full of rocky pinnacles and sheer cliffs. What few pines could grow in that area grew straight out sideways first, then up. The kind of country bighorn sheep loved, and where they least expected to find an enemy agile enough to follow them.
But my master knew a trail, and it was on that trail he took me. It partly followed the side of a cliff where a giant leaf of granite had once flaked away and fallen a thousand feet to smash on the talus below. The ledge that it left was only three feet wide, and it made the hair of both of us stand at attention when I picked my way across it. In one spot, it notched down to less than a foot, where a giant chip had dislodged from erosion, and I had to kind of jump-skip across. But my feet were sure and my legs were steady. Indeed I was a well-trained mountain horse.
The untrained packhorse was a lot less steady than me. I thought for sure it would plummet over the side. But somehow he managed to keep up.
During the easier parts of the trail I didn’t have to concentrate on where to put my feet, so I had time to let my thoughts wander. And mostly they wandered onto my plans for escape. Again a flood of doubts overwhelmed me. Again I wondered what I would do if wolves attacked me. Or how I could survive a blizzard. Or what I would do if I had to cross a cliff trail. Like the one we had just crossed.
My master always knew if such a cliff trail was crossable by a horse. He would get down and scout ahead, then come back and get me. But what if I should try such a trail alone, and find it impassable at a point where I couldn’t turn around? No doubt I’d have to jump off the cliff or starve to death on the spot. Could I really survive alone in the wilderness, or did I truly need the help of my master?
These worries crowded my thoughts and compressed my dreaminess. I turned to thinking about the corral. How safe and secure it was. How I always got that faithful evening block of hay. You know, the corral never really seemed like such a bad place once I was out and away from it, walking through the wilderness. So once again, I must humbly admit, I chickened out on my escape plans. I decided again that I wasn’t quite ready for wilderness survival. I decided that maybe I’d give it a shot next time, but this time it was definitely back to the corral again for me. Once we got our sheep.
We came onto a small bench overlooking a jumbled up mess of boulders hanging haphazardly off the side of the mountain. Looked like a war between the mountain and the moon had taken place here. It was a high, broken, weird sort of place. A spot where thin clouds would boil through, and freeze to pillars of rock. Where cirrus clouds would charge down cliffs and attack aiguilles sticking up from below. Where the wind swept through narrow gaps in bare rock, whistling a wicked, piercing song. A place where you’d expect to find ghosts and eagles. And, of course, bighorn sheep.
The small bench was the only sane piece of land for miles. It was about twenty feet wide and a hundred feet long. It was sloped at a slight angle away from the mountain, but was easy enough to walk on. On it grew the luscious green grass that the bighorn came for, and where my master would be waiting with his rifle. He prodded me forward a little ways so he could have a clearer look.
There was a small patch of dirty snow at the far end of the bench. Then the patch moved, and we both realized that it wasn’t snow after all. It was the fleece of a ram. About a 250-pounder. Light brown fleece and large curly horns. Nice and big, and ready for the shooting, just like that. It was straight dead-ahead, just standing there, gazing curiously at us while chewing on a mouthful of grass.
I froze in place and my head came up, ears perked like a jackrabbit. My master aimed his rifle. I took a deep breath and steadied myself. The ram stared. I slowly let my breath out. I remember seeing a red spot erupt on the ram’s chest just before it fell and disappeared from sight. Then I heard a wicked thunder and felt lightning strike my ear, jag down into my skull, and scramble my brains.
I leapt and spun. Bucked and ran a few steps. Something had hit me, and hit me hard. I shook my head mightily, and snorted.
My right ear was stinging like a hornet’s nest. The very tip of my ear. In fact, the highest spot at the very tip-top of my ear was where the jagging pain kept striking. It took me a few moments to figure out what had happened.
I shook my head again and a tiny wet droplet hit my nose. It smelled like blood. That’s when I knew. I felt sick. My master, while taking aim at the ram, had not realized in his excitement that the very tip of my ear was in his sights. He had shot off the tip of my ear!
And now he was cursing me! Because I had done like any normal horse would have done, and jumped when I felt a sudden pain, I was being cursed! My master grabbed my long reins and whipped the side of my neck. He called me a stupid horse. He didn’t seem to realize he had just shot off the tip of my ear. He didn’t seem to realize the stinging pain I was now enduring. He didn’t seem to understand just how stupid he was for shooting the tip of my ear off in the first place!
I began to calm and stopped dancing around. I stood there sullen, listening to the barrage of insults my master was inflicting upon me. The stinging had gone away, and was now replaced by a heavy, throbbing ache, that started at the tip of my ear, rolled down like an avalanche, and smashed into my skull, over and over again.
I stood there knock-kneed, with nostrils flared, and eyes white and glaring. Something deep down began to burn inside me. Like a spark that ignites a forest fire, that bullet had touched off a blaze in my heart. My blood was boiling. My mouth was frothing.
Suddenly I wanted to kill my master. I wanted to kill him, then carry out my former escape plans. To hell with his corral. To hell with his block of hay. What were things like that to me? To him they were only a license to take me up into the mountains, shoot off the tip of my ear, then curse me for jumping at the pain. To him I was just a no-good-for-nothing horse, with no purpose in life a’tall, to be used in any tortuous way he wanted. Well I’d show him I was a better horse than that. I would kill the son-of-a-bitch, that’s what I’d do. I’d kill him!
My teeth clinched around the bit as he drew rein on me. I snorted softly, then took a deep breath. A signal to him that I had calmed down. But just a ruse to hide the forest fire smoking away inside me. I planned to kill him when he least expected it. But right then he expected it, so I tried to act as calm and cool as possible.
My ear was still throbbing when he turned my head and nudged me forward. From the tip down to the skull, it burned. But the pain was nothing compared to what I planned to do to him. Heh-heh, it simply was nothing.
End of Part 3. Come on back tomorrow for Part 4, and the conclusion to this tall tale.
Categories: Series (Stories): Go West Or Go Weird