“Go in the house,” he yelled at his brother and sister. The palomino stallion exploded onto the front yard, whirling and stomping. He was in his tree and not sure he was safe there.
Mr. Murry and his hired man dug their heels in the goathead and hornytoad-infested patch of grass, weeds, and sand they called a lawn, trying to hold the beast, and still he drug them from the mail box to Mother’s jonquil bed. For such a monster, he had dainty feet, and their fine dance made a mess of her tackstems and Russian sage.
Paul hauled hay and cut grass for Mr. Murry, and he took him and Simon to cattle sales and flea markets. He was generous and nice to them, treating them to roasted peanuts and Coca-Cola, but sometimes he preached at them, which Paul didn’t appreciate. Another thing he didn’t appreciate was the way he looked at Mother. And flirting with her. Didn’t even try to hide that he was sweet on her.
Mr. Murry had the soft hands of a man who worked in an office – which he did at Tinker Field – and tried to make up for it by acquiring livestock that he fooled with on weekends in his forty acres. Paul believed he looked up to men like Che at the same time he looked down his nose at them.
“What would you want a horse like that for; you don’t mind me asking?” Paul said the day before to their neighbor when he and Billy brought the stallion home. The yellow terror had kicked the homemade trailer to splinters by the time they got him backed up to a corral.
“Watch yourself, son,” yelled Mr. Murry, waving a quirt at the stallion. Like that was going to do any good. “Ride him in the Frontier Days parade if I’ve a mind to, is what for. After your daddy breaks him for me. Shoot, they’re likely to name me grand marshal they see me sitting a rank steed broke by the great man himself.”
Paul thought if he shut up, Mr. Murry would let the whole thing go, realize how idiotic the idea was, but the man kept on about it, until Paul realized he meant to go ahead with it, so he tried to take the chicken shit way out and mumbled, “Che, he doesn’t really ride anymore, Mr. Murry. I know he would really like to help you – and he sure could – but him being old and stove up and all …”
Mr. Murry poked his hired man with the short whip and smirked. “Hell, your old man’s a world’s champion, son.” Then he laughed. Billy didn’t.
His big goddamn mouth was going to get Che killed. He punched the pillow that night like it was his face. When he grew tired, a couple of my jabs slipped the case and grazed Simon’s snotty cheek, but he was so far under Che’s ‘surefire’ asthma remedy, he wouldn’t have noticed if it’d been Floyd Patterson himself that slugged him. He only whimpered and turned over in the bed.
As far as Paul knew, the first Che ever saw of the animal that was going to kill him was when he pulled the station wagon up in the gravel, opened the door, lifted his hat, grinned out the corner of his mouth as he was want to do, and said, “Well, whatta we got here, boys?”
Mr. Murry, all of a sudden, acted like he was in a hurry. He gleeked out a diarrhea stream of Union Mule on the hyacinth and said, “Here’s a stud horse, Mr. Dennehey, we thought you’d want to take a look at before we called in Danny Schmitz and his boys.”
“Preciate that, Howard,” Che said, his eyes never leaving the horse. “Yeah, you needn’t trouble Schmitty and them over something like this.” Then he shifted his eyes up to Paul like he hoped and feared he would. “Skinny down here off that locust branch, Son, and give me a hand.
Paul was proud and terrified.
Che leaned over. “He’s a fine looking animal.”
“He’s nasty. I’m scared.”
“I know you are. Just reach over and take that lead from Mr. Curry and hold on with all you got. You can do it.”
He was just about to tell him, no, he didn’t think he could do it when the stallion lunged forward as quick as a cat and knocked Che to the ground.
MJ started crying.
“Thought I told you to go inside!”
“Who was it died, and made you my lord and master?” she said.
Che laughed hard, placed both hands to the ground so to get back up, then smiled at Paul. “It’s okay, Son. I know better’n to come up on a spirited horse. New and all to each other. Like that.”
The horse’s eyes were about to pop out his head, and he kicked at the two men trying desperately to hold him. “Think we got him as ready as he’s ever gonna be, Mr. Dennehey,” said Mr. Murry. “Don’t know how much longer we gonna hold this animal.”
“That’s fine, Howard,” Che said. “Just fine.”
Che got the toe of one boot in a stirrup and maybe his left butt cheek in the saddle before the two men let go their hold, and that horse jumped straight in the air like a helicopter, whipsawed his middle far to the right as quick as the copperhead snake had uncoiled to kill Paul’s pup, Blackie, and then threw Che hard against the slate siding of the house.
He hit the wall about chest high with a sickening thud, and Paul knew his arm was broken before he tried to hide it from him.
Now Simon started blubbering.
Mother came out of the house. She was not one to comment on a situation until she had studied it some, and Paul knew well the manner in which she took in a scene. First, she’d find the children: Simon and MJ standing together like twins – which they weren’t – holding hands and bawling, her eyes would behold him moving fast, she’d see Mr. Murry and Billy running after a wild horse in her front yard, and then she would find her husband up against the house on all fours and laughing like it was April Fool’s Day.
She scowled, but her eyes held that tiny, amused hint of light in them that she claimed was her Welsh. “You kids go inside and read or color or draw,” she said to the children, who didn’t move an inch. She said to Paul, “Son, see to your father.”
“That’s where I was heading, Mother. Don’t worry. I’ll bring him in to you.”
“No, you won’t.” She plopped on the big box she kept outside for her garden tools. “I’m tired. I think I will just sit and watch.”
Mr. Murry took off his hat. “Morning, Mrs. Dennehey. I believe your husband may be hurt.”
“Good day to you, Mr. Murry. My husband’s people came from over near Killyslavan, and that was after they were driven out of Ardnamurchan by famine and the English. They were a hardy breed. He’s fine.”
Che was still grinning when Paul reached him, but he knew he was in pain.
“You’re not crying are you, Son?”
“Hell no. These dang allergies.”
“Okay. Fine. I got a cramp in my leg. Rub it for me. Grind it hard like you do.”
“Arm’s fine. Don’t need but one to ride that rhinoceros-headed stick of dynamite anyway. I do need to ask you something though.”
“Sure. Anything,” Paul said, brushing his shirt sleeve across his eyes.
“Can you hold that horse for me?”
“You’re not getting on him again?”
“I ain’t been on him once yet. And that’s what I need you for. Can you hold him? I mean really hold him. Until I get on him, really on him? With me in a good seat and my feet set deep in them worthless Spanish stirrups? I don’t want Billy or Murry. It’s gotta be you. I want you. It’s gonna take ever thing you got though, son. Can you do it?”
No way he could do it. He nodded. “I can do it.”
“Not with tears in your eyes, you can’t.”
“Fine then. Let’s go.”
Mr. Murry and Billy had finally got the stallion settled down somewhat and were prancing him out the gate.
“Hold on, gentlemen,” Mother said.
“What’s that you said, ma’am?” Mr. Murry hollered from the gate.
You couldn’t have gotten Mother to yell if Satan was about to pounce. She considered raising one’s voice to another person about the lowest form of personal behavior there was. If Howard Murry was going to hear what she had to say – which he wanted – he was going to have to come closer. Which meant he had to bring the horse closer. Which is what Mother wanted in the first place.
“'Hold on,’ is what I said. Hold on because Mr. Dennehey will ride that horse of yours.”
Mr. Murry took off his hat again. He looked at Mother but couldn’t hold her gaze, and his eyes slipped downward. “It was wrong of me, Mrs. Dennehey. We’ll take this animal off your property now.”
“Howard, I do not know for sure if you intended to humiliate Che Dennehey in front of his children, but I will accept your apology, nonetheless. Now, if you will hand that lead rope to my son and back away, I believe my husband will ride.”
You could see that Mr. Murry wanted to say more. He didn’t.
When that rope touched Paul’s hands, it felt like he’d just been handed the tow line attached to a submarine. There was no way in hell he was going to hold this creature. The horse yanked his head, and Paul thought both his shoulders had come out their sockets.
“Hold him, son, hold him,” Che said softly as he took the reins. “That’s the way, Paul,” he said when he settled in the saddle. “Don’t get your face In there.”
Too late. The palomino jerked again, this time sideways, and the tooth just back of Paul’s dog tooth flew out the side of his mouth.
“That’s it, son. Let him out!”
If someone ever tries to tell you that a full-grown American horse cannot turn a complete circle in the air without at least one hoof touching dirt somewhere in the entire three hundred-sixty degree process, you’ll know that you’ve just been told a lie, because that is exactly what that palomino stallion did with Che Dennehey seated firmly on his back that day in their little front yard. When the animal finally landed, damned if he didn’t turn around (literally) and do it again – only this time in the other direction.
That magnificent mankiller jumped, bucked, twisted, kicked, stomped and did everything but turn a somersault for what seemed like the rest of the morning to shake the man from his back and couldn’t. At times, Che’s body looked like one of MJ’s ragdolls being shook in the mouth of a large, irate dog. Other times, he resembled the hood ornament welded fast and unmoving on a runaway pickup bouncing along the pasture. Most of the twenty minutes, though – which is how long the ride actually lasted – he looked glorious and in total control above the beast through the sultry June gluck, his bent and twisted right arm held high for balance, with Paul and Billy screaming their throats dry, Simon and MJ only weeping slightly now, Mother sitting ramrod straight and grand atop her garden chest, and Mr. Murry, standing at the gate, gape-mouthed and petrified.
When the stud horse finally gave up, Che aimed him straight through the gate at a dead run and ran him hard through the orchard. He sprinted him past the crabapple trees and pulled him to a splendid stop at the one cherry tree. For another thirty minutes Che walked, trotted, galloped and raced the palomino through the fruit trees. By the time he eased him back through the gate and handed the reins to Mr. Murry, that yellow stud horse was as sweet and behaved as Simon’s broom stick pony.
Mr. Murry tried to take his wallet out his pocket, but Che waved him off. “Was my pleasure, Howard.” What he didn’t wave off, though, was the half-pint Mr. Murry took out of his other pocket. “Don’t mind if I do, sir,” said Che, taking a big swig and then shoving the bottle in his own back pocket. “I’ll probably be sore tomorrow,” was all he added, walking toward the orchard to retrieve his hat which had fallen off during the ride.
Mother probably thought Paul followed Che to the orchard – which is what he usually did – so he didn’t think she knew he was still in earshot when she said, “Mr. Murry, I will allow Paul to continue helping you around your place because he needs the money for the baseball items he swears he cannot do without, but you are not to speak anymore to him or to Simon about evil and sin and morality for I am sure they will find it in their own bad time and method. Now, sir, you may take that animal off my property.”