“There’s a shoeing apron hanging behind the door and there’s a bucket right next to it with tools. On the other side of the feed room is a pile of old shoes, it’s all I’ve got right now. Pick out a pair of size 01’s. Let’s go practice on that other horse we brought back.”
Paul found himself almost skipping toward the feed room. He’d never imagined himself shoeing horses. He was a jockey. He’d ridden races all over the planet and suddenly here he was on a dusty ranch with a bunch of washed up horses, no women around, no money to be made and he could hardly contain himself from whistling. The apron was way too big, he had to tie the buckle strap in a knot to keep it from slipping off his hips. He rummaged through the stack of used shoes and picked out several pair that looked useful. Grabbing the heavy bucket of tools from behind the door with his good arm, he made his way up the barn aisle toward Nate who was already holding the other horse they had picked up at the shelter. Nate was running a hand down his left foreleg and the horse stood solidly still looking drowsy.
“Did you grab a box of nails to bring with you?” Nate put the horse’s foot down and patted the sleepy animal on the shoulder. The horse was already nuzzling his jacket pocket hoping for a treat, which Nate produced.
“Oh, I guess I just assumed they were with the tools.” Paul put the bucket down and and headed back toward the feed room.
“Don’t worry son, this little guy isn’t going to get shoes today or any day for awhile. Looks to me like this ankle is broken. We’ll not ask him to stand on it while we do his other foot. It would hurt like crazy for him and he’s just going to jump around on you.”
“Poor guy.” Paul stroked the shoulder of the sleepy horse.
“You’re not a bad kid for an Idaho boy.”
Paul’s hand dropped like a stone.
“Idaho? Who said anything about Idaho?”
“You did son. Guess you let that slip. I’m a Pocatello man myself, my wife is from Twin Falls. Idaho leaves a mark on you, not an accent of sorts, we’re all just shiftless Westerners, but that Idaho just won’t wash off. You know?”
“Sorry sir, I guess I don’t know.” Paul gulped and prayed silently for a distraction. His heart pounded.
“Well, let’s just cut the bullshit Paul. Your uncle was a good friend of mine and I knew your folks a little bit. You’ve got Wanda’s eyes – she was the prettiest girl in school.”
Paul’s head spun. He sat down on an overturned bucket. He would have bolted out the barn if his legs could have carried him.
“I’m not gonna torture you with how your family took to your running off. I reckon you probably know it broke your mamma’s heart. But they grow ‘em tough in Idaho.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Paul couldn’t look up, he wrung his hands.
“Nuthin to say. I just hate keeping secrets They end up causing trouble every time. As long as you do an honest job for me I got nothing to say about how a man wants to lead his life. I’m doing my best to respect that you musta had your reasons to hurt your mamma so.”
“I did. But they were selfish reasons.”
“Lord knows you aren’t the first young man to be selfish. I just hope it’s been worth it. Looks to me like you’re still running.”
“I guess I am.” Paul looked Nate in the eye for the first time. He was surprised to find kind amusement in Nate’s face. He exhaled and both smiled.
“Can’t blame a man for wanting to ride fast horses.”
“I guess I never really thought about anything other than racing. Like where they go after the races. I got so hung up in the race. In the moment you know?”
“That’s not so bad Paul. Living in the moment. That’s where these horses live. Whether it’s in the wild or on the track, they’re hard wired to run and run as hard as they can. Sometimes it’s for survival, but you know as well as I do that some run for the joy of it – even if they hurt. It’s just us humans and a few dogs that think about the before and after.
Paul rolled the thought over in his head. His head nodded unconsciously. He’d spent his time running. Running for his life, running away, running to, running out, running for glory, for money. Now, like the horses he was surrounded by, he wasn’t running, couldn’t run, he didn’t run.
“So now that you know what I’m doing here, what are you doing? How did you come to be here at this ranch?”
“Oh” Nate looked around at the horses in the barn sizing up each one with a horseman’s eye. Making sure each was eating, standing comfortably, feeling each one. He scratched his chin and took off his dirty ball cap with the logo for some long closed racetrack across it’s brim. He looked at the logo not reading it. “Mother and I used to breed racehorses in the days you could make an honest living with a couple of decent stallions. We did layups for the injured horses and we did a good job. Then racing fell on hard times, purses weren’t enough to cover the training bills and folks would send us horses to heal up and would run out on the bill. They’d just leave the horses here. No phone call. No nothin’. Or worse, they’d send the killer to come by and pick up a horse to go to auction that you’d spent the last eight months putting back together. It got so the good owners were paying the bills of the bad ones and so many of these horses were owned by multiple folks, we didn’t know who to dog for the bill. Every part owner of a horse loves a winner, but when it’s a layup, they figure it’s somebody else’s horse. Hard to want to care for a horse you don’t know. So we started finding homes for ‘em and word got around. The county would call with starved horses they’d picked up and broke folks would tie horses to the mailbox in the middle of the noonday sun if we weren’t here. Mother and I just figured that’s what we are here to do, to give these critters a safe place to land.”
“So how do you do it?”
“Keep paying the feed bill? Keep the fences up? Not just hate everyone that sends you a broken horse?”
“Well, some days are better than others that’s for sure and there are some good folks out there. We were smart and thrifty and worked hard to pay off the ranch some years ago. We had some money stashed away and we just figured we’d use it rather than leave it on the table after we’re gone.”
“But why do you do it?”
“Because it needs doin’ son.”
Paul laughed and looked at his hands again. Nate put his ball cap back on his head and shoed away a wandering chicken. A horse startled and snorted behind them.
“You aren’t the only one that has making up to do Paul. We all have things in our past that need atoning for. Some folks has got churches where they can go to clean out their soul. All I’ve ever had was a barn and that’s all I guess I ever needed. You see, we have a debt to pay to these animals. They’ve carried our sick and wounded, they carried us into war, they took us places we never could have seen on foot. Dogs and cats came to the campfire for warmth and company. Horses, we tracked ‘em down, took ‘em from their families. We made ‘em go places alone, live in cages and let us kick ‘em around in circles and when we got done with them, we ate ‘em. I never can figure whether they are the dumbest creatures or the most forgiving of animals. Maybe I don’t want to know which. ‘Cuz maybe I couldn’t live with the truth.
“Now c’mon son, the day is a wastin’ and we have some horses to shoe. Go and grab that bay mare over there.”