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Horse Fiction

Published: 6/24/2008
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This story is dedicated to a real horse named Lily, a fantastic horse at White Tail Ranch, where I worked for a few summers. She passed some years back.

Jean and Lily

By Maddy Butcher Gray

We’ll see ya tonight, right, Auntie Jean?” Her niece looked back at Jean as the girl kicked pebbles in the walkway and headed for the pickup truck.
“You betcha,” answered Jean, fitting on her brim. “You all have a good time.”
The girls, twin teenagers named Janey and Ruby Jo, along with their mother (Jean’s sister), Frances, were headed to the Great Falls rodeo. They'd all just shared lunch in the main house and were walking in a loose group toward the ranch’s broad dirt driveway.
It was July Fourth, so most of the hands were off for the day, probably at the rodeo already, tailgating in the expansive, dustbowl of a parking lot or riding the rides. Later, they’d take in the barrel racing, the bronc riding, and of course, the bull riding.

Great fun for the first few decades, thought Jean. She’d watched, competed, even brought home the barrel racing title some years ago. Someone mentioned rodeo and the smell of fried dough instantly came to her nose. Nowadays, she preferred the smell of the woods.

“You be careful,” shouted Frances, as she tossed drinks and snacks in the weathered, green Chevy for the 70-mile drive.
“You, too,” laughed Jean, as she headed to the barn. “Don’t be entering any Bull Poker contests.”
Frances moved out the circular driveway and headed towards Highway 100, leaving that Montana calling card, that pickup plume, that long trail of dust that stretched to the pines at the west end of Doubleday Ranch property about a half-mile away.
Jean headed to the barn and whistled.
“Lily, what say we get out for a holiday ride, huh?”

Lily was the bell mare of the 20-horse herd. She picked up her head and pricked her ears forward. Jean entered the paddock and moved past a few horses, reached Lily and paused to stroke her neck.
She was a special horse, a buckskin Quarterhorse, born on the same day as the twins, Easter Sunday thirteen years ago. Jean had been there, running from barn to house, fielding calls from the hospital and helping Lily’s mother, Joy, bring her filly into the world.
It had been one heck of a day for new life.
With Jean’s encouragement, Lily had slowly developed into a strong leader. She had become a vital member of the ranch staff, keeping track of the rest of the herd instinctively and incessantly. She could count her charges faster than any wrangler. She looked after them like a kindergarten teacher looks after her pupils on a field trip. A never-ending field trip. She had zero tolerance for bad behavior (Or rather, she was the only one allowed to bully any other horse.) and noticed injuries and illnesses sooner than any human.
Jean brought Lily into the barn, tossed the lead line over a half-wall and grabbed a brush and a hoof pick. Lily shuffled her angle to look out at the herd. When Jean picked up one of her front hooves, Lily touched the woman’s lower back with her muzzle as if to ask, “What’s up?”
“Yup,” answered Jean. “We’re heading out. Just you and me.”
Jean placed the saddle pad, then the saddle on her back. She reached under Lily’s belly to grab the girth. Lily resisted by holding her breath and making her belly bigger than normal.
“C’mon, girl, it’s not so bad,” Jean kneed her gently in the ribs. “And there’s only so long you can hold your breath, honey.”
She filled two Nalgene bottles with water from the tack room sink and tossed them in the worn saddlebags. They moved out of the barn and away from the paddock. Lily whinnied. Several horses turned their heads and answered, then bowed their heads to continue grazing. Lily whinnied again and pranced nervously, not used to leaving alone. Jean tightened the girth and mounted.
It felt good, Jean thought, even if she was getting old and perpetually sore. Her tanned, rough, and wrinkled hands stroked Lily’s neck.
Most days, the two were consumed with ranch duties: moving cattle, checking fences. Only occasionally did Jean have the time and energy for a pleasure ride. And when it happened, it was always a welcome respite. A getaway. A reminder of how good they had it.
She checked her saddle. She carried rain gear, bear spray, and an eight-inch knife with a serrated blade. She often used the knife for impromptu trailblazing. But the rain gear and bear spray? Never used them. Oh, once she had accidentally set off the bear spray. Most unpleasant.
Sold in a slender, 10-inch aerosol can, bear spray is just a jumbo can of Mace. Last summer, she’d accidentally released the trigger while mounting up. It’d got her right between the eyes. Instant pain and blindness. She spent the next hour in the bathroom, where Janey had flushed Jean’s eyes with warm water over and over and over and over until the pain subsided and sight returned.
Well, at least she knew it worked, right?
With a gentle touch of her rein against Lily’s neck, Jean turned her horse and headed towards the old logging road leading into Towas National Forest.
Lily looked back and stepped sideways.
“Stop it, girl,” Jean answered with a squeeze of her thighs. “We’ll be back in no time.
With her legs, her hands, and her voice, Jean won the argument and the two moved away from the ranch.
They looked through the forest, where the light filtered down through large evergreens and bounced off exposed rocks. Squirrels flitted out of sight. Woodpeckers flew casually from dead tree to dead tree. It was cooler, quieter, and the light was softer in the woods.
Jean maintained a steady conversation with Lily. It was a strategy she’d used since she was a girl. Heck, as many times it had been a way to calm and distract not just her horse but herself in those days when she had less faith in her abilities.
“Those would be red squirrels, my dear. And would you check out those jays? Another few minutes and we’ll be climbing, so enjoy the flatland now, Lily…Wonder if we can find some huckleberries…Bring some back for the girls…Bet they won’t find fresh huckleberries at the rodeo.”
They zigzagged up hairpin turns and climbed the first ridge. They loped through Clark’s Meadow and after twenty minutes entered thicker woods.
Their bodies started to relax. Lily lowered her head and maintained her powerful walk without any coaxing. Once and again, Jean noticed, Lily would pause to pick up a distinct smell. They walked on through the narrowing trail up the side of Tomtom Mountain.
Lily picked her head up and stopped short.
“I didn’t ask you to stop,” said Jean.
Jean looked around and urged Lily with her legs. Lily didn’t budge. Jean followed her line of vision and then saw what Lily had seen ten seconds ago and undoubtedly smelled a half-mile back.
It was a grizzly cub, foraging on huckleberries not 100-yards to their right.
It was this winter’s baby, no doubt. Darn cute. The fuzzy brown ball moved clumsily through the thick bushes, consumed with its consumption.

But Jean’s immediate thought was: “Where’s Mom?”

Lily shifted and snapped a branch underfoot. The cub lifted its head, spotted the pair and gave a little moan, calling his mother.
Jean shortened her reins, tried to sit deep in the saddle and sink her heels, silently telling Lily to freeze but be ready.
Jean followed the cub’s line of sight and looked up hill. Then she heard Mama Bear, grunting and moving through the underbrush toward her cub from 200 yards uphill. Had she seen them yet? Maybe not, but I bet she smells us, thought Jean.
She reached for the bear spray, tied to the saddle with leather straps just in front of her thigh.
Lily shifted.
“Stand, girl.”
They saw bears often but mostly smaller black bears and mostly from a distance. They’d never, in their 10 years riding in Towas together, had such a close encounter, And they had never been so miserably sandwiched between a grizzly mother and her cub.
Jean struggled with the leather tie. She’d cinched the can there in April and hadn’t messed with it since then. The knot was rigid and encrusted with dirt.
Lily pranced in place.
Was it like writing a check while driving? Like tying a kicking toddler’s shoe? No, it was like doing both at the same time with a gun to your head, she thought. She cursed her thick fingers and cursed the tough leather straps.
“Jesus, Lily. Stand,” Jean whispered forcefully.
The bear mother saw them now. She hastily jogged towards them, building speed.
Jean freed the knot at last. The tall can nearly slipped to the ground as she grabbed it. She fumbled to remove the safety tab. In those few seconds, the mother had closed to within seventy feet.
“Okay, Lily, not quite a bear sandwich. Mom at 10 o’clock. Baby at 3 o’clock. Path blocked. That makes our escape route behind us.” Jean spoke in a staccato voice as if rattling off the morning orders to her ranch hands. The delivery made it clear what needed to be done.
The bears advanced, Mama followed by Baby. Jean considered the Mace. This was the thing with bear spray: it only sprayed 30 feet or so. So if a bear was threatening you, it REALLY needed to threaten you. Bad-breath-range, friends had joked.

Jean quickly scanned behind them. It was typical forest floor, full of thickets, downed trees, saplings fighting with established trees for space. Two hundred yards on, the trail worked its way downhill.
She weighed the odds. Fight or flight? Given the forest growth, Mama Bear could easily outsprint Lily. But did they really want to stand their ground?
Jean signaled Lily and the mare instantly pivoted on her haunches and trotted powerfully through the thick underbrush.
She moved assertively despite stumbling and tripping over deadfall. Jean counted on Lily to navigate unassisted towards the trail, so she could turn around in the saddle and focus on the mother bear. Thick branches struck Jean in the upper body and head. One knocked off her hat, a decade-old rustler’s brim she cherished. It bounced off Lily’s hind quarters and dropped onto the top of a shoulder-high evergreen, giving the sapling the look of a lonely wrangler in the middle of nowhere. The mother bear paused for a split-second to inspect it, then continued her pursuit.
Jean glanced forward. In another fifty yards, they’d be on the path. Mother Bear picked up her pace, moving easily through the brush that was so treacherous for Jean and Lily. Shit, thought Jean, maybe there’s something to that Stand-and-Fight philosophy. The bears seemed to enjoy the pursuit and they were closing the gap.
Jean held the bear spray over Lily’s rump and depressed the tab, hoping the bears might run into its mist and be deterred.
At last, they reached the path. Jean moved her reins up Lily’s neck and adjusted her seat. The mare surged underneath her.
Galloping in an arena or a dirt road can be fun. The footing is sound. You can open up your horse and run for all it’s worth. No obstacles except predictable ones, like barrels. But this galloping was fleeing. There wasn’t anything fun, pretty or predictable about it.
Lily wanted to go. Jean wanted to stay in the saddle. The horse tripped on roots and skittered over rocks. A few times, Jean lost her balance and lurched forward, catching the saddle’s horn under her ribs. It smarted.
In less than a minute, Jean could see that the bears couldn’t be bothered with continuing. (Not that the Mace mist had deterred them.) They had chugged to a stop and watched horse and rider from the path’s edge.
Jean and Lily ran on. They got to Clark’s meadow and opened up to a full gallop with no roots, branches or boulders to impede them. As they approached the woods again, Jean struggled to bring Lily back to a trot. She pulled her up and moved her around to face the meadow.
“You’re alright, Lily. You’re alright,” Jean laughed when she realized she was still clutching the bear spray. She reset the safety and tied it back to the saddle as Lily bobbed her head, not content to stand.
They walked a few miles and paused at a stream for Lily to drink. Jean drank from her Nalgene bottle. How did they get so thirsty!? She stroked her mare’s sweaty neck and resumed their conversation. Both glanced frequently back up the logging road.
“You know we’re going to have to get back there to get that hat of mine, don’t you? It is my favorite…Relax, girl…We done good today. And who needs a big city rodeo, anyway?”
Janey and Ruby Jo would have their stories tonight. And Jean would share one, too.

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3/11/2009 Wendy
Love this story! Makes me wanna move out there and set up camp.

"Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses" - Elizabeth Taylor