Bruce Hoppe is an award-winning journalist. He is the author of two novels “Don’t Let All the Pretty Days Get By” and “The Thomas Ladies Club.” He has taught writing at Colorado State University and New Mexico Highlands University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-Los Angeles. When not at his writing desk he can usually be found horseback prowling Colorado pastures.
The Lark Buntings and the Doctor’s Ride
The way the Latigo reveals its story, as if wishing it had a toe to tap impatiently and a vocabulary that included, “It’s about time buster.” That’s how I picture it going down whenever I would clue in to another one of its confidences. As if the stalks of the Little Bluestem bobbing in the breeze were patient nods of forgiveness and, dare I even presume, maybe even an invite to become an accomplice in future tellings of these discoveries.
I was meandering across a flat stretch of pasture, the steers scattered about, Dancer, her running walk bobbing over the plain like a salty sloop on a close reach in an afternoon chop, and me lost in some internal monologue long since forgotten. A Hudson River School landscape of a June day, carpets of blue, yellow and fire orange wildflowers in evidence and the wind faded to a whisper. The chorusing of birdsong was the first clue that a new Latigo exposé was afoot. I was probably hearing it before I knew it. The multiple chattering’s from above drew me in as if the volume was slowly cranking up. Male Lark Buntings, black sparrows with white wing patches careened about in low level flight patterns barely out of reach. The sky all around me was peppered with soaring birds, like an itinerant dance troupe commandeering an open-air performance space. I tracked the aerobatics of a succession of performers as I rode along. The little guys seemed to be staking out territorial air space by repeating a precise choreographed series of maneuvers. First winging into a steep climb until, almost vertical, easing into a stall, hovering midair for some seconds before executing a half role to a gentle, gliding descent; the whole sequence accompanied by a coordinated series of chirps, warbles and trills. With Dancer passing beneath the living canopy of songbirds and the afternoon sky a backdrop of chalky blue, I embraced the pageant—imagining it a tribute to me, an honored exile coming home.
Losing the Doctor was losing the dream. A dream that began with a ten-year-old and a book. In it the story of a boy and a horse marooned on a deserted island. They bond and then return to the states to win the big race. Back then me a city kid growing up on the Polish near Northside of Chicago who, at the age of ten, could probably count on one hand the times that I’d ever even seen a live horse. But that tale fixed in me the notion that it was possible to connect with an animal of such profound beauty and that thought, from then on, gave new order to my world. Though over the years other obligations intruded, college, the Peace Corps, there was always the sporadic but persistent voice reminding that what I really needed to do was find my way back to becoming the boy in that book. What was I thinking? A thesaurus lists longshot as a synonym for fluke. It also lists dark horse. What then the stuff of dreams? I had to wonder as I watched the ritual overhead. These tiny birds, each the weight of a business envelope, plying invisible currents with singular purpose. Serenading hopefuls, staking out fleeting territorial claims.
I had ridden lots of horses in the years of my self-inflicted apprenticeship on ranches before I got to the Doctor. At times, being in the company of that elite class of riders for whom the practice of their craft is all there is. And, along the way there were tricks shared and philosophical treatises dispensed, tips offered, and cautionary tales told to me by these riders, this distinguished faculty of the horse, the guardians of a priceless knowledge base that can only be known through direct experience, of this I am sure and for which I remain forever thankful. So, I had some foundation in me the day that Stanley said he thought he had one for me and I should go out to the barn and have a look.
As I rounded the corner of the barn, I got a look at him for the first time. The head partly hidden in shadow but with just enough light to reveal a chiseled refinement and a dark brown eye that signified recognition, like he already knew something of my story. He was craning over the stall door scanning about impatiently, as if his confinement was an obvious mistake for surely the world beckoned. I stood transfixed, unable to move. For some seconds there in the barn alleyway I was that ten-year-old kid again. He turned to study me nostrils flared, gauging me by scent. Our eyes met but only for a few seconds, probably as long as it took for him to reckon that my purpose for being there was not to liberate him. Then, with a toss of his head and a snort that spewed contempt, he turned to a back corner of his stall to half-heartedly nose at a flake of alfalfa.
I came to the stall door and leaned in to get a better look. He raised his head to give me a second onceover. He stood in profile, save his head turned to me, ears perked forward, copper coat shining. So balanced in form and flex of muscle that he looked to be in motion just standing there or made you imagine him running in the moonlight scattering the creatures of the night before him. And I remember the tears welling up—that there could be such impossible magnificence in defiance of a world sorrowed by so much pain. Up until then it had been a hypothetical—to someday be mounted on a horse like this. To ride to fame and fortune in competitions, a magical partnership taking on all comers. But there in his presence I got a sense of something else. It was as if in that moment I’d caught a glimpse of an apparition flickering in my mind’s eye. I couldn’t make it out exactly or even if it really happened. But of its symbolic significance I was sure. “Take heed cowboy what’s before you is so much more than glory in the show pen.” What that more was I didn’t know then. What I did know in that instant was finding that out would be the most important thing that we could do together. Because a horse of this consequence deserved nothing less than the pursuit of the truth. So now here is this stallion that clearly fits an A list film script. And there is Fortuna prodding me, “OK Don Quixote, here it is moment of truth, all that. What’s it gonna be?” A part of me, still clinging to that ten-year old’s scenario, thought yeah sure me and this pony, in the cards, right? But the thought persisted that the old dream had changed in some fundamental way that meant taking things to the next step was a big unknown. And where Unknown hangs out his cousin Mischief salivates. When the dream amends, the universe ups the ante. Still, there he was looking at me.
The Lark Bunting aero drama was winding down. The sky was thinning of showboating birds. Only a few diehards persisted as I reined Dancer in to drink at the Lone Tree, a spring tucked into a bench of land that paralleled the Latigo’s northern boundary. It was the highest point in the pasture. While Dancer slurped, I scanned the whole of the prairie sloping to the South, the rolling plain carved in relief by lengthening shadows cast by the late afternoon sun. In silhouette the indigo triangle of Pikes Peak stood moored to the far West horizon. Dancer and I stood on the same spot where the Doctor and I had ended The Ride on that day.
I was up before daylight. It was the last day that I would have the Doctor. I saddled him up, jumped him in the stock trailer and headed for the Latigo. It was still some weeks before I would make the move to a permanent camp on that prairie but I knew the country well. Its big open was a good place for putting miles on colts that needed seasoning. I stopped at the cluster of weather worn cattle pens in about dead center of the five thousand acres and unloaded him just as the sun was coming up. He had never been to the Latigo. He stood stock still and vigilant, scanning the vast plain. Dual plumes of steam jetted from his nostrils as he tested the chilled morning air for any clues it might hold. The day-breaking sun burnished his coat to an amber sheen.
I don’t remember mounting up. Only being into the ride at speed. No safe, careful warm up. He wouldn’t stand for it that morning. He was straightaway into a sprint over a flat stretch of dew drenched gramma grass, flying through an opened gate to the South Latigo. I could have nudged him back down but we’d worked it out long ago in arena competitions when to defer to the other’s request to be the pilot. This ride was his show, as if it was his way to tell me everything he needed me to know to remember him by—to keep with me after he was gone. He found another gear and the tempo picked up. No longer a scrambling dash, now the lengthening, ground eating reach of the long distance runner. In the urgent rhythm of the breakneck pace, I became an extension of movement no human can ever know. He did not break stride at the fifteen foot drop down the soft, sandy bank to the arroyo. We vaulted from the rim, landing halfway down in a skidding plunge, a cloud of shimmering sand granules exploding over us like a dying constellation. I blew a stirrup on the landing and had to fish around with my boot toe for it as it flailed wildly, at the same time, trying to get back in sync with the Doctor’s rocketing gait. My boot found the fugitive stirrup and I slammed it home just as we hit the trickle of spring runoff snaking down the center of the arroyo. The Doctor’s hooves shattered the surface sheen, parting the placid stretch of water with a strafing line of successive splattering pockmarks, enveloping us in a rippling tunnel of sunlit rainbow spray as if beamed into our own space-time continuum. Changing leads on the fly, he veered sharply to the right toward a stretch of arroyo bank that was more cliff than slope. I could feel him tense under me as he took the measure of the bluff, neck bowed, ears locked forward, stride collected and gauging. Then a burst of speed that rocked me back in the saddle, for the last time to be a part of the unbounded promise of his private fury, that there was nothing he could not do and of that purpose he was—for the world to know, for me to know. We were flying toward what looked to me more like a wall with the distance to it swiftly closing. I could see the horizontal bands of earth toned colors of the soil profile and the bare roots of grasses dangling where weather erosion had exposed them. We reached what must have been his top speed on that flat. Then the sudden lift as the momentum catapulted us up against the steep, the g-force pitching me forward in the saddle. As he scrambled to find purchase in the buckling soil I threw my weight forward grabbing a hank of mane with my free hand and burying my face in his neck. Then we were surging up in what felt like a vertical series of eager, bucking lunges as if he deemed gravity a dignity to which he need only grant a passing nod. For a frozen-in-time instant, I felt centered beneath me a perfect calm, a symmetry as if, amid the anarchy of his driving thrusts, deliverance was within reach. But the Doctor allowed no time for existential musings. With a final bound he was back up on the rolling plain and settling into a breezing gallop. His breathing though not labored was noticeable now with staccato snorts coupled with each exhale and I could see dark sweat-stained patches in the creases at the base of his neck. But he felt relaxed and still very much up in the bridle. We were crossing the long sloping stretch heading up North to the Lone Tree spring just visible in the distance. A faint breeze, the first of the day, came over us and I could feel the Doctor recharge a little from its relief and dial the pace up just a notch.
And so we would run the rest of the Latigo that morning. We would run beneath a sky watching over us shaded in its most unselfish blue. We would run where the coyote stopped snapping up grasshoppers in midflight just to watch us running. We would run with the guardian winds in ceremonial escort and, from above, with the soaring Redtail hawk scouting our uncharted way. We would run, me and the Doctor, hearing his hoofbeats ringing their final rhythms upon the Latigo. And, entwined with them could we not also hear the beating of our hearts? For surely the coyote could, the hawk could.
The last of the Lark Buntings had gone to ground, their fleeting spectacle secreted with them in the cavities of their downy nests. I took in a last look at the panorama from the Latigo’s high point while Dancer alternated drinking and playing in the Lone Tree; first sipping then, muzzle submerged, splashing and blowing bubbles. The first time I saw the Doctor I had that Paul-on-the-road to-Damascus moment when it hit me that we were meant to be something other than players in the commercial venture laid out by our financial backers. Still, through all the years together how we tried to do what was expected of us in training regimens, competitions, contractual obligations—the commodification of things equine. But to try to fix the Doctor within those boundaries was like trying to take the measure of the dawn, as if it were possible to know the instant when night yields to the breaking of the day. This horse that would change my life. So at ease within the steady beat of his own transcendence—that part of him that I would carry with me and always strive to be and never again be otherwise.
The sun had dipped below the horizon while Dancer drank but its twilight rays beamed up catching a wind-sculpted cloud bank hanging in the West, transmuting it into a sky scatter of luminous orange red smears that bathed the Latigo in hues of redemptive crimson. I don’t know if we ever suffered a truth worthy of the Doctor or even if we ever could, but I think that together on the ride that day we got pretty close. And I think that’s what he wanted me to know.
I pitched Dancer some slack in the reins. She knew the way home.