By Leneé Cobb
An excerpt from Moonwalks and Unknowns
All names have been changed to protect the guilty, as usual.
A young woman in cutoffs stands a few feet away from me, waving her wand in circles through the air. I sit on a log along the Lyre River, watching sunlight glint upon the bubbles floating above the blond head of my two-year-old daughter as she and her dad frolic, splashing in the icy shallows. The heat, bubbles, and sparkling water take me back to another time, a time when marriage and children were not yet imagined, and life, like now, was to be savored as the very, very best of days.
Cloudless and sultry might mean laid back and bored so some but not to my red-haired, freckle-faced, chipped tooth, button-nosed best friend Bonnie, because I was here. We got up early for an adventure.
Two years ago, Bonnie and her family moved to Yelm from Lakewood, a not so small offshoot of Tacoma. She and her slightly younger (but taller) sister, Kate, had transformed from a couple of city girls into two country gals in no time. They walked the walk—a swing-hipped saddle swagger, and talked the talk—nailed that wee bit of drawl. They fit in perfectly with this goat-roper town. (I learned from them that goat-ropers was what they called the cow and horsey-folk in Yelm.) Their folks bought a small ranch on the outskirts of town, then added a few horses for family fun. One of the two sisters already had a goat-roper for a boyfriend. Geez. In Idaho, we just called ’em cowboys. But while in Yelm . . .
Hot is what this August day promised to be. Even though it was still early morning, we already had on halter-tops and cut-offs. Being a young woman with extremely tender feet—not to be confused with a tenderfoot—I stuffed my bare feet inside tennis shoes while Bonnie donned nothing over her toes, then we hit the kitchen for some grub.
Bonnie’s mom already had a huge pot of Chile simmering on the stove for all to nip into later in the day at their whim. Real milk with cream on top sat in a pitcher on the table, along with a cube of butter, syrup, and a stack of pancakes. We dug in, ate fast, and headed outside to the pasture.
The horses, lethargic in the sleepy warmth of the shade-less field, were easy to catch and bridle. Bonnie made her hands into a stirrup for me to step into so I could heft myself up onto Dudes broad, bare back. Bonnie? She leapt onto her horse Blitz just like you see trick Indians do in movies. However, you could have fit about three and a half Blitzes into my one old Dude. I doubted even Bonnie would be able to repeat that feat to mount him. Dude was one huge dude!
We journeyed south, alongside the rural highway. As we clip-clopped along, I sang softly, more to calm myself than the horses, because of the occasional vehicle that would unexpectedly whiz by from behind us. “Look all around, there’s nothing but blue sky. Look straight ahead, gulp, nothing but blue sky . . . gulp, . . . praying for.”
Bonnie looked over and smiled. I never could tell with her if she was smiling with me or laughing at me. I suspect both.
Dude was an albino Morgan-Percheron mix that used to pull railroad ties. He hated men with a fury for their mistreatment, but he was as sweet as Cadbury chocolate to me. He was all white with pink eyes. The sun hurt them so he tended to live much of his life with his eyes shut. Because of this, he would often trip; sending me sliding down his neck without warning, and it was a very long, long way to the ground. More than once, he flicked his head back up just in time to slide me back into place behind his withers. So, I had to be on alert when I rode Dude in the sun. To his credit, I noticed that before he shut his eyes, he would ascertain the terrain and memorize an astonishing amount of information, then close them again and do his traversing by memory. He was as comfortable as a gigantic well-worn soft sofa and could easily fit four of us teenage girls on his back.
Blitz was Bonnie’s newly acquired Arabian mare. Riding Blitz bareback was like trying to sit on a thin rail fence, or being short, as I am, trying to ride a mans ten-speed with that damned bar that women’s bikes blessedly don’t have. So pronounced was Blitz’s backbone compared to Dude’s that I did not envy my friends pelvic discomfort and noticed she rearranged herself every so often trying to ease it.
It was hard for me not to be jumpy riding along the highway. It was a struggle in self-control for me not to jump and cringe as vehicles passed. Bonnie knew it, so she rode Blitz on the outer side, closest to the traffic as if she’d been riding horses along highways all her life, which I knew she certainly hadn’t, but she was deceivingly convincing in her manner and I allowed she’d done it more than me. By law, we had to ride with the traffic, not against it.
A truck came up behind us and it was loud, sounding like the driver was applying his Jake brake. I scooted Dude closer to the scrub brush beside the ditch to give Bonnie more room and looked over at her just as the truck was even with the horses’ tails. In a split second Blitz crow-hopped directly into the lane in front of the logging truck and my heart lurched. In a flash, Blitz crow-hopped back beside Dude and me. The red and silver truck screamed by spitting dust and debris in its wake. Bonnie stayed calm, acting like it was no big deal; at least she didn’t show any sign of being shaken up to me, or that flighty new mare of hers. She asked, “Scare ya?”
I couldn’t even find my voice to say, “Hell yeah!” I just rolled my eyes. It seemed a long spell before my heart began beating again.
About a quarter mile further, she pointed out an unmarked logging road leading into the thick woods on our right. It was a welcomed relief when we veered onto it, and I expelled a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. We walked the horses through the fir-shaded forest at an easy downhill pace towards the Nisqually River. Halfway down, we stopped at a spot supporting some grass for the horses to keep themselves occupied with and a good-sized stump. I’d need that stump to get back onto Dude after our break; he was so tall. That way I wouldn’t have to rely on her playing stirrup for me.
Bonnie took this time to grab a hoof pick from her back pocket and scrape a few bothersome pebbles from the horse’s hooves. She placed the pick back into her pocket and said, “The trail gets steeper from here.”
Finally, we arrived at the river. Where the trees gave way to water the sun shone bright, glinting off the ripples of the current. The river was wide, and not so deep that a person couldn’t walk almost across it, but deep enough that if a person wasn’t weighed down somehow, the current would sweep their feet out from under them. The horses delighted in splashing right into the water, sending millions of crystal diamonds sparkling in rainbows of reflected color high into the air.
I felt Dudes nerves of excitement ripple beneath me. Towards the center of the river and onward to the opposite bank, there were a few places where the horses seemed to swim a few steps as we glided over deep pools. Coming up out of the water was fun for all four of us. Bonnie and I laughed as the horses shook themselves off. We were all invigorated. Bonnie smiled over at me, gave her flaming hair a quick shake, an invitation to race. I nodded and we steered the horses onto a newer logging road that wound through a much younger set of woods. Then she leaned forward, put her lips next to her horses ear and yelled “Ssss!”
We were off!
They say Dude ran on “two feet,” which, when I asked, they said meant that it looked like he bucked as he ran. Both his front hooves hit the ground simultaneously, lifted, then BAAM, both his hind ones hit—hard. The earth quaked each time his massive hooves hit the ground and within seconds I had to let go of the reins, (which, I discovered later, were tied in a knot for Dude’s occasions of running, they said, because there was no way anyone could hold reins and stay on him.)
I sat way up on his withers, clinging onto his mane with one hand and gripping his neck for dear life with the other.
I was riding thunder.
I loved it!
Later, Bonnie said I was the only person she knew who could stay on Dude as he ran. Maybe she said this just to make me feel good. But I never had fallen off Dude; of course I knew it was simply because I was too dang fearful of the huge beast spilling me at full speed.
The horses were really racing against each other now and although it was neck and neck, Dude would always let the girl horse win in the end. He was just that way. Nevertheless, until the finish, which was definitely not yet, he’d give the mares a great run.
There was a gentle curve in the road and we raced around its bend, hooves kicking up dust and pebbles behind us. We grinned wide-eyed as banshees, Bonnie making her loud “Sssssss” sound, mimicking a snake, to egg Blitz faster. Suddenly, two logs appeared, lying next to each other right across the road. The horses were going way too fast to stop. Terrified, I look to Bonnie. She sees the logs too. She knows I’ve never jumped anything in my life and what’s more, I’m on pink-eyed old Dude–the renowned tripper.
Will Dude make it over them with me or am I gunna die? It must have been obvious to her by my expression what I could not voice.
She grinned wide, shouting above our self-made wind, “You can do it! Just hang on!”
I had no choice.
We flew over the logs, which were, I could see now, not actually next to each other but separated by about two and a half feet. I tried to close my eyes but at the last second I looked down at the logs directly beneath me and they looked back at me!
Logs . . . what?
Dude landed jarringly hard but stable, and kept stride, but he sensed something out of the ordinary, and snorting, ears flickering back and forth, he slowed down on his own to a trot. So did Blitz. Then they stopped in baffled wonderment, as curious as their riders about what just happened. Both horses turned around without our guidance, to look back at what we’d all just jumped.
Two men, GIs by the looks of their haircuts, bolted upright from the road to stare back at us dumfounded. (Back in those days, no guy would willingly cut his hair that short. Short hair was a mark of military, period. They had to be GIs.) They rose slowly from the road, shakily, clutching their army-green sleeping bags around their torsos.
Astonished disbelief packed the silence.
Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick.
A wren warbled.
One of the GI’s shook his head, blinked, then said, “Wow! That was some wake-up call!”
Sweat drips down my forehead and between my breasts.
I came here on business wearing a cotton summer dress and heels.
Now, business is over. I watch my husband and daughter, along with others, playing in the icy cold of the river. The young woman with the wand plunges it back into the bottle of suds, pulls it out, and readies to bless us all with another wave of bubbles.
I stand up, kick off my heels. Still stuck in my dress but what the heck, I take a running leap into flow.