On the Mountain

Devin Murphy Click to

Devin Murphy’s stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, South Dakota Review and The Greensboro Review and have won Glimmer Train’s Short Story Contest for New Writers and Best Start Contest. He holds an MFA from Colorado State University and is currently pursuing a Creative Writing Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The older Girl Scouts kick out the screens of their bunkhouse at night and wander the open fields at the back part of the ranch.  They often walk down the dirt road my cabin is on to get to the horse pasture.  I can see them in the dark.  They move like timid deer — taking quick dashes ten yards at a time and stopping to assess the night around them.  They betray themselves by laughing when one bumps into the other.  I keep my porch light off so I can see the stars.  The girls never pay attention to my cabin tucked along the tree line or me on the deck as they line up along the fence, stepping on the first plank to lean over the top and coo to the horses.  They wave carrots and apples they’ve hoarded from the mess hall.  I like watching this — the slow saunter of the horses approaching and nuzzling the girls, their movements breaking the stillness of the night, fireflies touching the space around them like thin blue flames.

By morning, the undertow of the mountain will have pulled the girls back to their bunks, and the horses will be slick with dew, and honey-colored in the pasture.  The bear grass will bloom like fists of light pounding up the hillside, and by afternoon, rainstorms will darken the sky and strike the ground with lighting before blowing over and leaving this calm I have only felt in the mountains.

My boss Joe rents the horses from an outfit called Sombrero that lets them free-range in the mountains during the fall and winter.  The horses are all starved and half wild by spring when they come to the Girl Scout Ranch.  Joe had us wait by the horse trailers when they arrived to send back the ones we thought were too sick.  If we could fit a dime between its protruding ribs we wouldn’t let it off the trailer, and the ones we kept had to spend two weeks being retrained by the wrangler girls.    So when a wrangler calls this morning from the stable and says an old horse has died, Joe says, “You fellas misjudged one,” and we have to go out in the rain to get the dead horse before the campers see it.

Joe drives us to the pasture, which runs along an incline with a large cup of earth surrounded by lodgepole pines with rainwater pooling over the roots.  My coworker Kurt says that later in the summer the rain washes away the topsoil down to the clay, “and the clay gets slicker than snot.”

Kurt and I take the tractor into the pasture.  It’s slow going — the wheels can hardly catch in the mud.  Just into the trees lies a dark brown Quarter Horse.  Its head is sloped downwards enough to see a row of yellow headstone-shaped teeth.  Its unfurled tongue lies on the ground like a dull pink ladle.

“We’d be better off just letting the mud swallow the damn thing,” Kurt yells over the engine noise.

The other horses are in the open part of the pasture. But the one they call  “All-But” is watching us through the trees.  All-But has everything but one eye.  The eye he has is a piercing cloudy blue.  That blue eye is on us as Kurt ties a sheepshank knot to bind the dead horse’s back legs together.  He hooks a chain to the knotted rope and loops the chain on the back of the tractor where I stand as Kurt drives.  He eases the tractor forward slowly so he won’t tear off the legs.  When the chain is taut, he leans on the gas, and the old horse pivots from the pot of earth it died in.  Once we get it out of the trees it starts sliding easily over the wet mud.  As it runs over jagged rocks I notice chunks of the hide and meaty patches of the horse’s side left behind.  Joe holds the gate open for us so none of the other horses can get out.

“Drag it as far into the woods as you can, and toss some brush cover over it,” Joe says.  He has on a mesh baseball cap and the beads of rain are running down the back of his neck.  The cold does not change his posture or his directness.  He seems like he’s done everything a hundred times.  Kurt drives past the horse barn toward the woods, away from the little girls’ cabins.  On the gravel and root path going east along the mountain, the horse’s body gets caught on a broken root that gouges under its ribcage and snares it like a fishhook.  We change the knot and tie another one to its front feet to pull it loose.  Dragging it by the front leaves the head swinging backward at an awful angle, and I watch the neck snap as we drive, making a quick “pop” that breaks through the steady tractor noise.

Where the gravel road opens up into a small field, a group of girls hiking single file between two counselors emerge from the woods bordering the camp property.  They all stare with big open mouths at what we’re dragging until the counselors make them turn their backs to us like they do on the road when we pass, so our truck doesn’t throw dust in their face.  As the tractor passes them I see how the rain slides off their hoods in little rivulets, and I hope none of them turn around to look at the horse again.

We untie it in the woods at the end of the camp property.  The hide has been scraped raw, and the last ten yards of mud we move it through is blood-smeared.  This high up there is too much bedrock to bury it, so we use jigsaws to cut away at the surrounding trees’ lowest branches and pile them over the horse until we can no longer see its mangled form.  Part of me feels like we should light the pile on fire.  I ride on the back of the tractor as we return the way we came.  The last of the rain washes the copper-red blood marks and clumps of horse fur away from the trail.  The sun is breaking through the clouds.  Sunlight gushes up the hillside as if trying to memorize the contours of every jagged stone.  Already turkey vultures are flying in wide spirals above the slope we left the horse on, the black finger of their beaks tracing the mountainside.  The birds cut through the sky like they are scrolling something on the mountain’s thermal updrafts — a language of nature’s neatness, its cycles, of wind speaking of life on the mountain.