In the spring, a year after the foal was born, Sean and Viggo rode to Ballard's to help with branding and castrating calves. Hands, farmers, wives and children came for miles to visit and share what news they had, and while the calves were sorted and tended the women prepared food and in the late afternoon they lunched on tables crowded under shade trees.
"You don't mind my askin'," said one of Ballard's men, a short man with a moustache, "how come you to ride that mare?"
There was a chorus of laughs as many of the men had lent a hand at Sean’s place from time to time and the question was not a new one to them.
"Well," Viggo said, "she's my horse. Seemed like the thing to do."
The man shook his head. "Seems to cut as well as any, better'n some."
"Better than some for sure," Viggo said.
"That why you bought her?"
"He won't say," Sean said, his first comment on the subject or any since sitting down, "and if he does you can't believe it."
They were interrupted by a woman, a redhead in a plain bonnet who passed out baskets of cornbread amongst the hands and to Sean she gave also a smile though he did not take notice.
The creek had begun to run low. Sean said it happened sometimes.
“And of a sudden it’ll flood one day,” he said to Viggo as they passed it by on their way home from Ballard’s. “You can't predict it, though it seems you should. If it don’t come back high in a day or two I’ll ride up and see what’s the matter. Once found a dead buck the size of a bull, closing it off at a narrow piece.”
Viggo frowned. “Let’s hope for a flood,” he said.
"I found her in Colorado, standin' in a field of daisies, just eatin' grass, pretty as anything. She walked right up to me, put her head on my shoulder, right here. I told her to go on but she followed me out of that field and halfway across the state, and I ain't been able to be quit of her since."
"Aw, that ain't true," the boy said, a dark-haired fellow sitting on a hitching post, swinging his bare and filthy feet. Viggo was waiting for Sean who had business at the bank when the boy asked about his horse.
"It might be," Viggo said.
"Ain't nobody could give me a girl horse. Wouldn't want to be seen ridin' one neither."
"Now, you're gonna hurt her feelins talkin' like that," Viggo said, patted the horse’s neck. She stood quietly beside him, tail swishing even as her eyes drooped closed.
"Horses ain't got feelins," the boy said, jumped to the ground to regard Viggo. "You sure got some queer notions, mister," he said just as Sean approached, then took off down the street as if on some sudden remembered errand.
"Making friends?" Sean asked.
"I try." Viggo said. "If you’d quit scarin’ 'em off."
On a Tuesday they followed the low and drying creek north, toward higher country, the mule in tow, harnessed and packed, until they found a place where the creek was dammed by a fallen tree and other vegetation stirred by a recent wind storm. The water had begun new paths, cutting shallow and confused through the red earth, disappearing over the west ridge.
Sean cut away limbs that could be shifted by hand with an axe brought in anticipation of such a purpose, while Viggo tied ropes around the largest part of the trunk, wading knee-deep in the cold water on the north side of the dammed creek. Then they unpacked the mule and tied off the ropes to its harness and Sean asked him to pull. The ropes snapped taut with a deadly quickness, the mule’s pointed feet digging into the ground at a harsh angle, head low, Grullo barking from his place at Viggo’s feet. It was near dark by the time they had moved the broken tree to shore and dug out the creek bed where the sand had banked against the trunk.
Hours later, they shuffled in through the kitchen door, first Viggo then Sean and then Grullo who narrowly made it through the closing door. Dragging feet, scraping chair legs, and heavy sighs filled the room, even a tired pup’s whimper as knees were asked to bend, bodies lowered into chairs or onto scruffy old rugs, a thing not done since before dawn, it seemed. Viggo whistled, shifted uncomfortably. Sean agreed, rubbing his neck. Then, for a while, the only noise was the persistent sound of Grullo gnawing some bit of rock from the pads of his paw. After a while Sean looked at the stove. Viggo looked at Sean then rose with a grunt and gathered flour and lard and a few other things.
When Viggo had finished and sat their dinner on the table Sean still had not left his chair.
“It was my turn,” Sean said.
“I know it,” Viggo replied, fetching preserves to the table.
“I appreciate it.”
“You didn’t seem up to it.”
Viggo shrugged. “It’s just biscuits.”
“I could eat a pound of them.”
“Well I only made half that so have some more coffee.”
Sean was mending fence late in the evening when Grullo came around the house, barking fiercely, high and shrill, a particular sound they had come to recognize as a warning of company. Sean looked toward the horizon, past Viggo who had stepped from around the barn where he’d been feeding chickens, a bucket still in his hand. A figure on horseback, crudely cut against the setting sun, lumbered toward them lazily, the edges of him fuzzy in the dimming light, his horse too lean.
“Evenin’” the man said as he stopped closer to Viggo but still a way off, wary. His beard was short but bushy and his clothes were dusty from riding who could say how long. He was red-faced and his horse was a dirty sorrel, so that they might have sprung up from the ground for as much as Sean could tell.
Viggo nodded, hat in hand and said, “Evenin’ preacher,” so that Sean looked at him with surprise, and then to the man whom he might have guessed was a miner before a preacher.
“Could I trouble you gentleman for water and whatever else you might spare, or shall I pass on?” His accent said he was from the East and educated, whatever his clothes might say against it, and he was at least ten years Sean’s senior.
Viggo looked over his shoulder to Sean who nodded shortly and Viggo held the man’s horse while he dismounted, stiff and crooked and pluming red dust as he shook out his jacket and removed his hat.
“Bless you,” he said to Viggo, tired and grateful, “bless you both,” to Sean.
“I bought her off a rancher in New Mexico, said he’d give me a deal if I could break her, though I don't reckon he intended to ride her. Called her names I won’t say in front of a preacher.”
They all three sat at the kitchen table, an extra chair brought in from the parlor for their guest who had been grateful for dinner, a bath and a shave, and grain for his horse. He had a pleasant smile that seemed more genuine than Sean was used to with preachers. The redness in his cheeks and forehead wouldn’t wash off, a gift of the sun, and his clean-shaven chin was pale, so that he looked a bit comical, but more like a man of God.
“I suppose you must have been successful with her?” the preacher asked.
“Not right off. She dumped me half a dozen times 'fore I was even in the seat. Never seen a horse liked to rear half so much.”
“Still does,” Sean added.
“Only because you don’t know how to ask polite,” Viggo said with a smile and a shrug.
The preacher smiled at this. “I have found it is the same with people,” he said, considering his coffee thoughtfully. “The more I shout the less they listen, unless they are used to that sort of thing, raised in it as some are. A man of my acquaintance once told me you had to shout louder at a cowpuncher than a civilized man, oh, no offense gentleman, only quoting, that you had to shout louder as to be heard over the stomp and roar of the cattle. But I have found this to be untrue. That the hand who is not likely to be found in a saloon on his rare day off is more for a quiet conversation and a handshake, rather than a sermon at full volume.”
He went quiet then and sipped his coffee until Sean said at last, “You know, preacher, I believe that might be the first I’ve heard him tell a true story about that horse.”
Viggo offered his bed to the preacher who declined it at first, not wanting to put him out, but Viggo insisted that he had a soogan that would suit him just as well, stretched over the parlor floor, but in fact he decided on the loft in the barn, a place he had slept many times last spring when his mare had been due to foal.
He was close to sleep when he heard the ladder creak and in the dark Sean spoke soft and Viggo reached out until Sean blindly found his hand, then turned and sat and lay down next to him, half on the blanket, half on the hay.
When Sean had settled Viggo said, “Your bed get too hard?”
“He snores,” Sean said and Viggo could hear the smile. “Louder than you. I didn’t think it possible.”
“He makes you nervous, doesn’t he?”
“What makes you say that?”
Viggo shrugged and he knew Sean could feel it against his shoulder. “My daddy was a preacher.”
“Is that why you told him the truth about your horse?” Sean turned to him, speaking softly.
“I reckon. Wasn’t the whole story anyhow."
"What else is there to tell?"
Viggo rubbed his feet together, thinking. "Well, she ain’t my first, to start. And I might have said how I prefer ‘em on account of finding an old girl standing skittish in a field in Old Mexico, blood all down her flanks from whatever poor old Mexican had been astride when he met with cavalrymen. I’d lost my horse days before and I’d just been walking, turned around, not knowing if I was supposed to be fightin’ somewheres and without a rifle anyhow. She let me catch her after a while. I had to be patient. She was still saddled, one of them vaquero saddles with a horn the size of a dinner plate, which was lucky because I’d traded my McClellan for some tortillas and a bottle of whiskey. She carried me back north and by the time I crossed the border, the border as I knew it then, the treaty had been signed.”
Sean was quiet.
“If you’re thinking something go on and say it,” Viggo said.
“I'm wonderin' if I ought to believe you.”
Viggo lifted himself onto his elbow and leaned over Sean and kissed him, slow and long, Sean’s hands moving sure and warm at his side until Viggo leaned back and told him the preacher might miss him if he wakes.
Sean pushed at Viggo’s shoulder, rolling them over, pressing Viggo into the blanket and the hay, keeping silent in the dark but for quiet laughter and low sighs, mingling with the sound of horses and mule shifting in their bedding and Grullo whining softly at the bottom of the loft ladder.
A week after the preacher left, off toward Ballard’s where Viggo said he might find a fair number of cowpunchers eager for conversation, the creek flooded, spilling over the banks, spreading dark and wide, the cows sinking in mud nearly to their knees to get to the running water. Sean and Viggo spent an afternoon dislodging an especially clumsy heifer from the muck, boots sucking in the mud, filthy to their waists.
They rinsed in the deep.
“I recall the first time I came to this creek,” Viggo said, squinting in the sun and pushing wet hair back from his forehead.
“I reckon I do, too,” Sean said.
“I thought you’d string me up, bein’ on your land.”
“I thought you might have been a rustler.”
“Never can tell, I suppose. The people you meet,” Viggo said, smiling, splashing water in Sean’s direction.
Sean waded closer, reaching out. “You can’t predict it,” he said.