published in Volume 1, Issue 5 on November 20th, 1994
Earl stood in the doorway of the barn, out of the rain, and watched his brother's truck move up the long gravel road that came from town. He re-lit his damp cigarette and took one pull on it, then without finishing it he threw the remains into the mud in front of his feet. He wiped a fleck of tobacco from his lower lip, then zipped his jacket against the cold and waited.
Jack was driving his old Ford, a white three-quarter ton with a cattle rack, and he was pulling a livestock trailer. He swung it wide to avoid the ditch and turned into the driveway. There were potholes all the way to the barn, and the truck bumped and swayed, throwing arcs of brown water. The springs of the truck groaned as the wheels dipped and shuddered.
Earl stayed out of the rain and kept his hands warm in his pockets while his brother turned the truck around and lined the trailer up with the pasture gate. The driveway was slick with mud and the remains of the last snow and the rain was falling hard. There was hail mixed in. It was the middle of March, but it could have been late November or early February from the feel of it. It was cold, and gusts of wind sometimes blew the rain sideways into the barn and into Earl's face. He pulled his cap down over his ears, shoved his hands back into his pockets and walked out to help his brother.
Jack was having trouble looking out the back window and the mirrors were spotted and streaked with rain. He had to try three or four times before he got the truck and trailer lined up. He backed up until he heard Earl thump his hand on the trailer's fender, then shut off the engine and set the brake. The hail coming down on the roof of the cab made a noise like popcorn hitting the lid of a pan. Jack sat in the truck and listened to the sound. He rolled the window half way down and got a fresh cigarette out of his shirt pocket. He found a butane lighter mixed in with the old receipts and scraps of paper on the top of the dashboard. He looked out the window at Earl. "Goddamn downpour," he said.
Earl nodded. Rain came off the bill of his hunting cap and dripped onto the ground in front of his boots. He stood with his hands in his pockets and his collar up. He looked at his brother sideways. "I thought you was gettin' a horse trailer," he said. He looked back, behind the truck. "That ain't no horse trailer."
Jack looked at the cigarette between his fingers, and scratched at a patch of dry skin on the back of his hand. "Goddam Harking said he couldn't spare one," he finally said. "Bastard said a cattle trailer'd be good enough." He lit the cigarette and blew smoke out the corners of his mouth. "Hell," he said, "I can't even count how many times he's borrowed my goddamn flatbed." He took a second pull on the cigarette, then stubbed it out against the window glass and tucked what was left back into his pocket. He put on his hat and gloves and opened the truck door. His back was hurting, and he grunted loudly when he stood up. He steadied himself against the open door and bent his spine back to make it straight. He shut the truck door and walked past Earl, toward the pasture gate. "Where's this damn horse at?" he said.
Earl led Jack through the gate and across the front pasture to the cross fence. "She been back here all the time," he said. "Won't come out of the back pasture for nothin'. I been tryin' all morning, but she ain't moved." Earl took his hands out of his pockets and unhooked one end of a barbed wire gate. He pulled it out of the way and laid the tangle of wire against the main fence. He walked into the back pasture toward the horse. Jack followed, walking slower. He watched his brother from behind. Earl was tall, at least six inches taller than Jack, and wore a heavy wool coat that made his legs look thin and weak. He is weak, thought Jack. Always relying on someone. He looked back across the field toward Earl's house.
"Where's Kate today?" he said. "Ain't she helping?"
"She ain't here," said Earl.
The horse was standing in the mud with its head lowered and its front feet placed apart and rigid. It was thin and dark- headed with black spots on its chest. Rain splattered on its back and formed streams that flowed down between the lines of its ribs before separating into heavy drops that splashed into the mud. The horse didn't move, but its eyes followed Earl as he walked up and took hold of its halter. Earl clipped a rope onto the halter and tried to pull the horse forward. Jack saw its ears go back and the muscles of its neck and shoulders tense up and resist.
"She ain't movin' for you, that's for sure," he said. "You been fightin' her too much." He nudged Earl out of the way and put a hand under the horse's chin. He lifted it up until the horse's eyes were level with his own, and spoke to it in a soft voice: "What's the matter with you, eh?"
The horse's ears twitched and stayed back. Jack pushed its head higher and held tight to the halter, then pushed sideways and back, throwing the horse off balance. It stumbled and stepped to the side, the mud making sucking noises as the hooves pulled free. Jack kept talking.
"Come on, girl, ain't you want to stretch them legs? Come on, mule, let's keep a movin', hear?" He pulled to the side again and the horse continued around, backing up and stepping sideways in a clumsy circle. Jack worked the horse, moving in larger circles until they were close to the opening in the fence. He stroked the horse's neck and talked, but when he tried to coax the horse forward it stopped at the line where the gate had been and wouldn't go through. Earl stood nearby and shook his head.
"Won't go through," he said. "She ain't been out of this field in years."
Jack stood next to the horse and looked at the gate, and at the field beyond and the trailer. He shook off his right glove and pulled the half-smoked cigarette and the lighter out of his pocket. He held them for a moment, considering.
"Does Jenkins know we're bringin' this horse?"
Jack flamed the lighter and the horse jerked its head and took a step backward. Jack took three pulls on the cigarette before snuffing it out and putting it back in his pocket. He took off his coat.
"Hold on to her," he said.
Earl held the halter while Jack draped his coat over the horse's head and covered its eyes and ears. Jack tied the arms of the coat together under the horse's jaw, and tucked the excess material into the straps of the halter. He talked to the horse again and walked it back into the pasture and around in a circle. He steered the horse through the mud, never in a straight line, until they were through the gate and into the front pasture. Earl pulled the barbed wire gate back into position and followed Jack and the horse across the field.
Jack was huffing from the effort of walking with the horse, and from the pain in his back. His chest hurt and he was wet from the rain and sweating in the cold air. Steam rose from his shirt. He paused to catch his breath, and spit at the ground and looked straight at Earl.
"Where's your wife, she ought to be doin' this. It's her damn horse."
Earl shrugged his shoulders and looked at the house. "Ain't here," he said. "Ain't here, and I got to move this horse today."
Jack looked at Earl for a long time.
"Hell of a day you picked."
Earl held the horse while Jack opened the back of the trailer. The rain had slackened to a light mist, and the air was quiet. Earl could hear the horse breathing under the coat. The coat had slipped down so the horse's ears were visible, and they twitched independently, uncertain.
Jack leaned over to put the ramp into position. He felt his back begin to spasm, and he dropped the ramp the last four inches to the ground. The noise startled the horse, and it crow-hopped to one side. Earl kept hold of the rope.
"Christ," said Jack. He straightened back up with a grimace. He took the halter rope from Earl and tied it to the post on the inside of the trailer.
"Better get that coat off her head so she can see what she's doin'," said Jack.
Earl untied the arms of the coat and slid it off the horse's head. He could smell the sweat from the horse in the fabric, and the smoke from Jack's cigarettes. He walked around the trailer to put the coat into the cab of the truck and noticed the same smell when he opened the door. There was also the smell of grease, and the smell of mildew. And maybe, thought Earl, the smell of perfume. He laid the coat across the seat and noticed that the newspapers and scraps of cardboard strewn on the floor of the passenger's side were damp and muddied with footprints. Small footprints; the footprints of a woman. Or a child. Another Mexican, thought Earl.
Jack tied a longer rope to the horse's halter and passed the free end through a metal ring inside the front end of the trailer, bringing the end of the rope back out and looping it twice around the support post to form a cleat. He untied the short rope from the halter. He stood next to the horse and pulled the long rope taut. The horse leaned back to resist the pull of the rope, but Jack pushed sideways with his shoulder to force it to take a step. The horse hesitated, confused about who was pulling the rope, then lost its balance and stepped forward onto the ramp, its hooves clanking and slipping on the wet metal. The horse put its ears back and strained against the rope. Jack pulled tighter and gave the horse another shove from the side.
Earl stood to the side and watched. "Take it slow," he said. "She'll get tired pretty soon."
Jack gave the rope another wrap around the post, tied it off and relaxed his grip. The horse stood with its head stretched forward, unwilling to take another step up the ramp. Jack took off his gloves, stepped off the ramp and lit what was left of his cigarette. He asked again, in a quieter voice this time:
"Where's Kate, Earl?"
Earl looked past his brother at the house and small yard. Stacks of tires and old shipping pallets -- the remains of last year's garden -- leaned from the weight of a hard winter. Rusty baling wire, melting scraps of cardboard and rotting pieces of plywood littered the ground around the mobile home. Car parts -- wheels and fenders and engine blocks -- were piled under the living room window, next to the steps.
"I asked you a question, Earl," said Jack. "Why ain't you answerin' me?"
Earl finally looked Jack in the eyes. He swallowed, hard.
"Ain't here. Don't you get it, Jack? She ain't here." His mouth twitched on one side. He looked at the ground. "She's been gone more than a week."
"Shit," said Jack. "That figures." He dropped his cigarette butt into the mud and stepped back onto the ramp. "That just goddamn figures." He untied the rope and pulled, harder than before. The horse struggled against the rope but couldn't get a foothold on the slippery ramp. Jack dragged the horse up, jerking on the rope and taking up the slack around the pole. When the horse was at the top of the ramp and nearly in, it threw its head violently up, scraping the skin on its forehead on the rough metal of the trailer roof. Dark blood dripped down its cheek.
"Take it easy, Jack, huh?" said Earl, watching.
Jack wasn't listening. He alternated between pulling on the rope and hitting the horse. He started yelling: "Come on, you damn mule! Get in there!"
The halter broke with a loud snap. Jack fell back with the rope and stumbled down the ramp into the mud. The horse caught itself before falling and ran for the road. It got to the end of the driveway and turned right. It kept running, splashing water from potholes as it went -- running until it was out of sight.
Earl sat on a wet stump and put his face into his hands. Jack found another cigarette in his shirt pocket and lit it. His hand shook as he held the lighter, and his back stiffened into a tense mass of pain. He clenched his teeth and leaned against the side of the trailer. He saw that Earl's shoulders were shaking, and he snorted with disgust.
"Christ, Earl," he said, "it's just a damn horse."