The Paint Mare
Lead gray skies hung over the small pasture lined with almost bare oak trees. The few brown leaves, soon to be gone after the cold front soon to arrive, swung precariously in the gathering breeze.
Preston opened the door of the small barn and quickly stepped in to start his morning work of cleaning the stall and making sure it was ready for the approaching snow.
The small paint mare greeted him with a snort and pawed the ground as he opened the gates to let her into the pasture.
“Go run, girl. It won’t take me long and I’ll have you some feed when you get back.”
The mare trotted from the stall and was soon out running in the pasture that surrounded the small frame house. The pasture, enclosed by a wood fence, was surrounded by open land, which held the cattle of local ranchers that leased the land.
Preston gave up the cattle business a few years before. He’d made good money on the sale of his cattle, but realized his decision was the long wait for his eventual demise. Every day made the decision weigh more heavily. His life had become a memory and his only chore was to take care of the paint mare that was now running through the pasture.
As he worked, he remembered the day he bought her. It was at a livestock auction five years ago, when the mare was put up for auction before the cattle sale started. Poor, and with a limp, the bids started at fifty dollars. The slaughter buyers raised the bid to eighty dollars when Preston placed his own:
“I bid a hundred dollars.”
The auction was quiet for a few moments. The auctioneer made a half effort to raise the bid, but was unsuccessful.
“Sold for one hundred dollars to buyer number seven.”
Some of the buyers smirked; the others just shook their heads. Preston remembered the faces of the buyers, but he remembered the mare more. Scared, panicked and at the last crossroad, she was destined for the slaughter house, or salvation. Preston gave her salvation and still wondered what prompted him to make the decision.
He remembered when he brought her home. He’d placed her in the holding pen and slowly approached. Quietly shushing the mare and finally grabbing her halter, he petted her neck and finally looked at her teeth. She was only seven. Tying her to a gate post, he continued with his examination.
“Let’s have a look at that leg, girl.”
When he touched her leg, the mare raised her hoof, so Preston cradled her lower leg between his legs and started examining the bottom of her hoof.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” A broken bottle was stuck in her frog. Preston, now angry, wondered how this escaped the original owner. His anger soon turned to disgust. He’d seen many things during his life that shook his faith in people. This was one he placed at the top.
Preston walked to his barn, found his Kopertox, large pliers and quickly returned to start his task of removing the glass.
“Steady girl. We don’t want a rodeo.”
Preston grabbed the glass and pulled hard. The mare never flinched.
“This should make it better.”
Preston placed a hefty dose of the Kopertox on the hoof and then examined the other three hoofs. Within a minute, he’d seen enough.
“I’ll trim your hooves tomorrow girl. You’ve had enough for today.”
Within days, he brought her to the vet to have her teeth floated, vaccinations and wormed. Over the next few months the mare put on weight, her shine returned and was soon running in the small pasture by the house. With the bottle removed from her hoof, she never limped again.
Preston wondered how she ended at the auction. He knew most of the sellers and buyers, but never found out who brought the mare he now called Petey. Her one black eye reminded him of the dog on the Little Rascals, so he didn’t care if the name didn’t match her gender.
Removing the last of the soiled shavings he placed new shavings in the stall, filled her water bowl and placed a scoop of feed in her food bowl. The sound of the food hitting the bowl brought the mare within seconds. As she ate, he watched and gently scratched her neck. All she needed was some hay.
“Good morning, Dad.”
Turning, Preston found his daughter, Janet, who appeared at the door. She was in for a visit, although they never seemed to last very long. She lived in New York City, was divorced and her daughter was in upstate New York at college.
“I see you decided to finally get out of bed.”
“I’m not used to this early morning stuff. I work evenings and late into the night.”
Preston didn’t reply. He didn’t want to ruin the moment, although he never understood her decision to live in New York City and pursue acting as a career.
“You really like that horse.”
Preston thought about the comment and replied: “We’re the best of friends. I talk, she listens and we never argue.”
Janet let the comment pass. She knew the remark was a reaction to her relationship with her father. They had many disagreements, which led to her decision to move far away and pursue and acting career in New York after college. She never had an acting career, but she did become involved with the business end of Broadway. While her name was never in lights, she knew how much the lights cost and who to pay.
Preston only nodded. He was feeling the change in his joints and the pain was a constant reminder of his age.
“Do you need some help?”
Preston replied: “Her brush is in the cabinet. After I clean her hoofs, you can give her a good brushing.”
Janet retrieved the brush and watched as her father cleaned Petey’s feet. He was gentle and constantly comforted the horse as he worked.
“Our last performance was last week.”
Preston kept working and ignored the comment. He didn’t know what to say, although it seemed as though it was confirmation he would soon be alone again.
Preston asked: “When are you going back?”
“I need to talk to you about that.”
Preston felt a sadness he hadn’t felt since the last visit. Janet spent a week, had a telephone call and was gone. The “long” visit only lasted a week and it was two years until she returned.
“Things have changed, Dad.”
Preston didn’t respond and waited for Janet to continue.
“Broadway isn’t doing as well as it should.”
Preston nodded his head and looked at his daughter: “You’re good at your work. Only a fool wouldn’t keep you working, or hire you within a minute.”
Suddenly embarrassed, Janet realized her father hadn’t complimented her in years His words had pride and admiration, which he hadn’t shown in a long time.
Preston continued: “As much as I didn’t like your decisions, I never felt you’d be anything but the best at whatever you choose.”
Tears filled Janet’s eyes. She needed to continue, but found she couldn’t find the words.
“Be careful around her belly. She’s a little ticklish and she might jump.”
Janet started brushing the mare, while Preston went to the hay barn for more hay.
When he returned, he found Janet absentmindedly scratching the mare’s neck and staring across the pasture.
“Are you okay?”
“Do you want to talk?”
Janet waited a few seconds before responding: “I’ve been thinking about a lot of things.”
Preston waited, while Janet gathered her thoughts.
“I used to feel sure about life. Every play was a new challenge and the future was bright.”
“So what’s changed?”
“Business isn’t good and my theater is really struggling. There’s rumors that if things aren’t better after the next production, the doors may close.”
Preston waited without speaking.
“I’ve even thought of coming home; if you would let me.”
Preston put his hand on her shoulder and replied: “Baby, you don’t have to ask to come home.”
Janet waited a moment, turned and found her father had tears in his eyes. She quickly hugged him and laid her head on his shoulder.
Preston was first to speak after a few long moments: “We need to hurry if we’re going to beat the weather.”
Continuing to brush Petey, Janet spoke: “I don’t know what I’d do if I came home.”
“You used to be pretty good with horses; a natural, as far as I was concerned.”
Janet replied: “I guess I was. I even had friends asking for my advice on training.”
“There you go; you can train horses.”
“It’s been a lot of years and I don’t know if I still can.”
“Well, you have Petey to help you. I doubt she’d mind having more attention. We could buy a few colts for a start”
“I don’t have that kind of money. It will cost a fortune to just move.”
Preston continued filling the hay bin for a few minutes before he replied: “I have the money and I’m willing to be partners with you, but with one condition.”
Janet waited for the “condition” she knew she couldn’t accept.”
“You have to keep the books and handle the hiring of helpers.”
Janet realized she was at a crossroad in her life. If she accepted the offer, she knew her life would change forever. New York City would become a memory; she would never return to Broadway.
A little fearful, Janet asked her father: “Can I think about this awhile?”
Preston laughed: “Of course you can, although I think I might have just found me a new business partner.”
Janet smiled, hugged his neck and replied: “Thanks, Dad.”
“You know we’d need more stalls.”
“That, and more pasture.”
“The leases come up in a month. I can change the boundaries.”
Janet placed the brush back in the cabinet and walked to the stall door.
“It’s snowing, Dad.”
“Sure enough, it is.”
“Should we close the stall door?”
“Nope; she’ll be fine until this evening.”
“C’mon old man, I’ll make you some breakfast.”
Preston smiled and memories flooded his thoughts. He remembered the summer before Janet’s last year in high school. She’d set up the barrels and was preparing for the 4-H rodeo. Knowing she was worrying too much, he’d made a bet he could beat her time – on her horse.
“That’s a sucker bet.” She replied “And you’re the sucker.”
She beat him, but only by a few seconds.
After the race, she’d commented: “Not bad for an old man.” After that “old man” became a term of endearment.
She won barrels at the rodeo. He remembered the moment and the pride he felt. Janet was on top of the world, until that winter, when her mother died from pneumonia. The loss left a gap between them that never seemed to close. At that time, neither could be consoled and neither could find a way to tell the other how they felt.
As he thought, Preston realized he was still feeling guilt. He just knew he could have done more, yet time made him realize there was nothing either could do.
Janet noticed the sadness on her father’s face.
“Are you okay, Dad?”
For a moment, Preston didn’t hear her. He was still wrapped in the past; and sadness.
“Just thinking of days gone by. They seem like yesterday.”
Suddenly apprehensive, Janet commented: “You know you can change your mind.”
Preston walked for a moment before he spoke: “I never felt I did enough. Your mother was so special, fought as hard as she could, but it wasn’t enough.”
Janet walked in silence, with the events of the past suddenly appearing once again.
“I felt as though I neglected her and took her for granted. She was always there for me and I realized when she needed me most, there was nothing I could do.”
Janet grabbed her father’s shoulder, turned him and said:” You never neglected her.”
Her eyes flooding with tears, she continued:”If anyone neglected Mom, it was me. She gave me so much, only asked little in return and was always there when I needed her.”
Not knowing what to say, Preston only hugged his daughter for a few moments.
Neither knew what to say, but they both had just admitted they felt guilty for something that was never their fault. Both realized the years of dealing with their own spare baggage had left neither with the ability to help each other.
Hooking her arm around her father’s, Janet led him towards the house.
“C’mon Dad; we have some business to discuss.”
“I thought you wanted to think about this.”
Janet smiled and replied: “I did.”
As they approached the house, the heavy flakes increased; graying the distant hills into obscurity. The wind was increasing and the storm would soon place drifts against the house. By morning, the brown trunks and branches of the trees would stand in stark contrast to the solid white of the snow covered fields and gray skies. Winter was arriving as the paint mare pranced through the falling snow.