Story of the Month: Up Hill

image of horse for story Up  HillIt was old Dade driving.  We picked him ’cause he was the soberest, or so it looked to us, who felt, most of us, that we were too un-sober to drive.  I could have, I suppose, in a pinch, but it was a moonless night, and the road was solid dark as only a country road can be.  Plus, there were the horses, six of ’em lined up side by side, head next to rump, head next to rump, and so on—with a pony thrown in for good measure—crowded into an open stock trailer meant for hauling cattle to slaughter.  It was a little crampy for them, but the slats let in the breeze and the trip wasn’t all that long, plus horses generally aren’t going to like any kind of ride anyway, no matter what they’re in.  None of us had a real horse trailer, though we all had horses.  None of us knew anyone would lend us a good trailer, either.

We were headed for the horse camp on Mount Ashton.  In the lead was me and Dade and Lizzie, pulling the six horses and the pony, and behind us was Gaylord and Trent with four more horses in another, smaller open stock trailer, and behind them Edna and Rob in the van with the food and a lot, but not all, of the gear.  No one wanted to ride with Edna and Rob because they were always sniping at each other or else wouldn’t talk to each other at all.  I don’t know which is worse to have to sit through.  Edna usually got the short end of the stick in any argument.  She wasn’t as quick as Rob with words, which is maybe why, later that night, she did what she did.

My sleeping bag and my duffel bag of clothes were in the van, and some of my beer.  We had a couple of six packs on the floor of the truck cab, between my and Lizzie’s feet.  We didn’t want more than that ’cause they would’ve got warm, plus Dade was not a beer drinker.  We were pretty well stoked with wine by the time we left anyway.

We’d set out well after midnight, wanting to hit the last stretch of road by two o’clock or so.  Mt. Ashton is a popular camp, and the only way in is a steep, twisting road so narrow that if someone’s coming down and meets someone else going up, the car going up has to back down until they reach a turn-out where they can pull over and let the down-hiller pass.  On a busy weekend during the daytime, it could take forever to get up that mountain.  Plus, backing up a horse trailer on a curving road with steep drop-offs is no fun.

Old Dade wasn’t really that old, thinking of it now.  In his forties, I guess.  But we all were in our twenties, so he seemed old, plus he’d worked outdoors all his life and had that look of a brown paper bag that’s been used and re-used ’til it’s soft and creased all over with deep lines and finer, spidery ones in between, too.  Both Lizzie and I had slept with Dade a time or two, like when it was raining or snowing too hard to want to drive home in, or when he’d been especially sweet, which usually meant he’d paid for something.  He was a good dancer, too, plus he’d actually dance, whereas the other guys would mostly sit slouched in their chairs watching if we were at a bar, or turn on the game on t-v if we were at someone’s house, or only want to dance the slow ones and then only if they had a plan for you for later.  But I don’t think it was the chance of maybe sleeping with somebody that kept Dade around.  He genuinely liked us, the unit of us and the spirit of us, a sort of perpetual traveling party.  And on our side, it was like having a big brother or maybe even a father or uncle who understood us and appreciated us, or at least forgave us.

But after that night on the road to Mount Ashton, the ease went out of it, and Dade came to seem like a sorry, broke-down drunk we wished would leave us alone.  And maybe we came to seem like something similar to him.  Anyway, after that night, there weren’t as many parties where he was there, and though we’d talk and laugh some when we ran up against each other at the Wigwam Inn or The Shamrock, and maybe play air hockey with him or watch him work the pinball—he was great at pinball, he danced those machines—it wasn’t the same, and he never came home with us afterwards or invited us to his place, either.  It’s not that we held him responsible.  Blame wasn’t something any of us wanted to get started.  Blame has a way of spreading, like poison ivy rash.  It’s just that he was a reminder, and we didn’t want to be reminded, because to be reminded might lead to thinking things over, things about our own selves, and who would take the chance of where that might lead?  Not me.  Not Dade, either, I suspect, because he never protested the change.  We had that Friday night on the mountain, and we all went through that weekend pretty much as we would have anyway, but after, we were done with each other.

Dade was maybe driving faster than he should have, though to be fair, neither Lizzie or I noticed it at the time, and the others behind us were keeping up just fine, so I suspect they didn’t think it was too fast, either.  The way Dade took some of the curves did make us lean, though, and Lizzie, who was next to him, accused him of just wanting to get her up against him, but she laughed when she said it, and even I, who knew about the trick latch on the door that had let it fly open a time or two in the past, didn’t worry when my shoulder got pushed up against it, with Lizzie pressing against me, too.  Worry wasn’t something I did much of in those days.  Cops didn’t worry me, nor bill collectors, nor bosses, nor bartenders who kicked us out if we were getting too rowdy.  I could get scared, though I didn’t often, and I sure as hell could get angry and mean, and I could go all sentimental at the flip of a coin, but worry just slipped on by me.

Once, on a sticky hot August night, me and Gaylord climbed over the fence at the County Zoo and went skinny-dipping in the seal pool.  The seals were inside somewhere, asleep I guess, and though the water smelled a little fishy, it was cool and silky and perfect, and we swam and floated for what seemed like hours and didn’t even speak, it was so magical.  Then, somehow, there was a seal in the water with us.  It swam by me incredibly fast, and as it passed, I felt the water move like a stream’s current along the whole length of my body.  I scrambled out and called to Gaylord, but he didn’t believe me and only hissed at me to keep my voice down, until the seal lifted its sleek, dark head out of the still, dark water and stared right at him with its eyes shining like huge black marbles.  He got out of that pool pretty quick then.  Worry, for me, was like that seal.  It might get close, but it didn’t touch me, and it never seemed quite real, nor worth sticking around to get to know better.

We were almost to the camp when we got to the worst curve.  I didn’t see it coming, as I was bending down to get a beer.  At first, it didn’t seem any different from the curves before it, and maybe, in fact, it wasn’t.  The entire road is cut into the side of the mountain, like the spiral of an apple peel taken off in one piece, so all the way up, we’d had rock or dirt wall on one side, Dade’s side, and a steep drop-off on the other, with no guard rails, of course.  The pick-up truck took the curve as tight as it had the others, though trying to recall later, I did think Lizzie was thrown against me a bit harder than she’d been on other curves, plus I think the beers on the floor slid, which they hadn’t earlier.  I definitely remember that for the first time, I seriously wondered about that trick latch and if it was gonna hold, and I put my free hand on the dash to steady myself, though that certainly wouldn’t have kept me in had that door opened.  But whether the curve was worse or not, whether Dade’s turn was sharper or not, whether Dade should have been driving at all or not, didn’t really matter.  It didn’t matter in the way that it doesn’t matter whether you take your umbrella or not, or if you’re wearing new shoes or old kick-arounds, if it’s going to storm, it’s going to storm, and what you’ve got to do is get through it with what you’ve got—or haven’t got—and not nit pick or second guess or wish things otherwise.  At least, not right at the time.

The front end of the truck made the curve okay, but the rear end spun out towards the drop-off side of the road, turning us so we were crossways astride the road.  The long stock trailer spun out behind, hit the soft shoulder, and went over the edge, its weight dragging the truck backwards towards the drop-off.  Lizzie and I were wailing, Dade was gunning the engine, even though the truck was aimed straight at a rock wall, and he was holding the steering wheel jerked to the right like we were skidding on ice.  Then suddenly, the truck stopped.  But it wasn’t anything Dade had done that saved us, which we saw as soon as we jumped out.  The hitch connecting the trailer to the truck had caught on a tree at the very lip of the drop.  The truck was held fast on the road, and the trailer was dangling in the air over the side of the cliff like a plumb line marking the straightest route to hell.

It was then I heard the horses.  Of course, they must have been screaming before, but I was so scared myself, and it was all so lightning quick, and Lizzie and me and the truck engine and the brakes were all making such a racket, I hadn’t heard them, or I hadn’t known I was hearing them.  But now that it was quiet—except for Gaylord and Trent and Rob and Edna running towards us and calling out if we were all right, and Lizzie next to me sobbing—the shrill voices of the terrified horses filled my ears like they were the only sound in the world and always would be.

Because there were no separating stalls in the trailer, all the horses had slid down to the back end, where they were writhing and squealing in a horrible pile.  Of course, we’d tethered them to trailer slats by reins attached to their bridles, and our knots had all held, so now the horses who were at the top end of the trailer, the end closest to the pick-up truck and the road and the tree, were hanging by their heads.  The bridle straps distributed the strain some, going as they do around a horse’s crown and brow and nose with the cheek pieces along the sides of the head, but still it must have felt awful.  Later, we debated a long time which animals had it worse, the ones on the bottom with other horses laying on top of them and lunging to try to get up, or the ones at the top, strung as if for slaughter, necks stretched unnaturally upward, legs free but useless.  All of them kicking and screaming.  Plus, the loose pony, who no one had bothered to tether, scrambling frantically over all of them, pounding his hooves any which where, biting haunches, getting up a ways, then falling back, then twisting up to climb again.  And, of course, none of them could really see, what with the pitch black night and the flailing bodies of one another.  Us up on the road could hardly see, which was sort of a blessing.  Hearing those horses was bad enough, and imagining what it was like inside that trailer.  Plus the fear of whether that tree would hold or if the whole crated pack of them was about to fall to their broken deaths.

What we could see, once our night vision kicked in, was lots of legs and hooves pushing through slats, wildly pawing the air like they might actually be able to get somewhere.  Then all at once, there was Gaylord climbing down on top of the trailer with a sheathed hunting knife in his teeth like some kind of Indian commando.  Gaylord, God bless him, shot and killed himself a year later, but that night he was a hero, clambering over that trailer of screaming horses hanging over a bottomless pit, cutting reins to free the horses’ heads, pushing legs back inside as best he could.

I paced up and down the road the whole time he was out on that trailer, tears and snot running down my face.  I couldn’t keep still.  I didn’t want to see him go over the side, but I couldn’t look away, either, and as dangerous as it was, I was glad he was doing what he was doing, for the sake of the horses, who didn’t deserve this, who tolerated us stuffing them in a box and hauling them up a mountain in the middle of the night, who tolerated us on their backs, who galloped when we were in the mood for a thundering fast ride or loped or walked when we were feeling more dreamy or wanted to watch the scenery or to talk to each other while we rode, no matter how they themselves might’ve wanted to be going.

Dade must’ve seen I was sneaking up on getting hysterical watching Gaylord, because he came up and told me I should run ahead to the campground and see if anyone had a blow torch so we could cut into the trailer at the end nearest the road and maybe get the horses out that way.  Edna and Rob had already taken off in the van down the hill to call for help, but we didn’t know how long they’d be or who they’d bring back.  I set out right away for the campground, without a moment’s doubt that some camper had brought along a blow torch.  I was relieved to be in action and to escape the noise of the horses.  Now the four in Gaylord and Trent’s trailer had started in, too, spurred by the screams of their fellows in the accident trailer.  Horses do know worry.  Comes from living so close to humans so long, I guess.

It was all up hill, but I ran the entire distance to the campground, almost a mile, with only a few stretches of walking when the stitch in my side got too bad.  I was sweating and gulping air and cursing my cigarette habit, and it seemed like I’d never arrive, but finally I did.  And I hadn’t thought once about cougars.  Of course, everyone was asleep, all the tents zipped up and unlit.  Not even the glow of campfire embers anywhere.  I heard soft snuffles from the corral.  I wondered if the horses there could smell anything on the wind about what was happening down the road.  If they could, they hadn’t yet, or else they’d have been acting spooked and restless, and probably someone would’ve wakened up to go check on them, making my job easier.  But I didn’t really care if my job was easy or hard.  I went tent-to-tent, shaking tent poles and shouting did anyone have a blow torch.  I got some sleepy no’s, some curses, plenty of shut-up-and-go-away’s.

I can’t say for sure, of course, but I think if I’d been in a tent on top of a mountain and someone came shouting way past midnight wanting a blow torch, I think I’d’ve got up to see what was what.  But nobody there had enough curiosity, I guess, and I had to head down hill again empty-handed, going slower this time and peering hard into the patches of underbrush, having begun, at last, to wonder about cougars.

The tortured cries of the horses reached me before I was in sight of the accident, and they erased all thoughts of cougars from my mind.  As before, the voices filled my head until there wasn’t room for anything else.  I could have turned back to the campground and waited there in peace and quiet for whatever solution or finish was going to come, but somehow I felt I had to stay at the scene.  I wanted to be with my friends, and I wanted to see with my own eyes what would happen and be there to help if I could.  But mostly, I felt like I had to listen to those trapped horses, as terrible as it was.  That I owed them that.  That maybe they’d even know somehow I was there, that we were all there.  That we wouldn’t leave them, no matter how much we wished to be somewhere, anywhere, else.

When the accident did come into view, I spotted the flashing red lights of two State Police cars, and that hurried me along to discover what they were doing to fix things.  But when I got close, I saw the cops were just standing at the edge of the cliff with their hands on their hips looking down at the trailer in its dicey situation as if they’d never seen anything like it before, which probably they hadn’t.  Gaylord, who was back on solid ground and drinking a beer to steady his nerves, told me that the cops had radioed for a tow truck, but it was likely to take a while because it would have to be a special one and not your ordinary kind that tows cars with crushed fenders, and that the nearest heavy-duty one was some 30 miles away and the owner had been asleep.

I took a beer and went and sat down where I could watch the trailer if it fell.  The horses never stopped screaming, but there were some lulls in their struggles to get untangled from one another.  They must’ve been wearing out.  The cops wouldn’t let Gaylord out on the trailer to try to push legs inside again, and I was grateful to them for that.  I must have been crying, because all of a sudden, I found I was breathing in big shuddering gasps and couldn’t slow down.  A cop came and told me to go wait in his car with the doors and windows shut.  I guess, like Dade when he sent me to the campground, the cop saw I was near the end of my rope, and he didn’t need any more complications to manage.  He kept saying, “Ma’am, just go to the car.”  And I kept saying no, I had to stay where I was.  I got control of my breaths and pulled myself together so he’d give up and let me be, which he finally did.

When the tow truck arrived, a hulking monster machine like something you’d expect the Army to have, the driver took one look and refused to hook up.  He said that pulling the trailer up was going to jolt it and tilt it, and he didn’t want to be responsible for any injuries the horses might get from that or from their own kicking and thrashing, which the movement of the trailer was sure to rev up.  So a vet had to be sent for to tranquilize the horses first, and we had to wait some more.

It was still very dark.  The cops had turned off their red lights because Trent said the flashes might be making the horses even more nervous.  But I was seeing pretty well anyway.  I scanned around to check where everyone was.  Gaylord and Trent were lifting a cooler out of the bed of the pick-up.  Dade was standing by the cab watching them.  It didn’t seem any of them were talking.  Lizzie was lying down in the back of a police car, her bare feet sticking out the open door.  The tow truck guy was pouring coffee from a thermos into cups for the two cops.  The van was parked next to the cliff’s edge on the other side of the trailer from where I was sitting.  Edna and Rob were standing in front of the van, and though nothing could be heard over the horses’ bleating and whinnying, I could tell by how Edna was lifting her arms and waving her hands around that they were arguing and that she was losing again.

At last, the vet came.  He climbed out onto the trailer like Gaylord had done, except he was armed with hypodermics, and the cops had tied ropes on him for safety, which somehow none of us had thought to do for Gaylord.  In the dark, and with the horses riled up anew from his banging around overhead, the vet couldn’t see which horse was which.  He had to lean over the edge and stab blindly, hoping he hit them all, plus hadn’t given any one horse more than a double dose.  The cops hauled the vet up to the road, and the ruckus in the trailer, which had been a constant assault on our nerves for so many hours, gradually drained away.

By the time the trailer was on the road, and the horses had come to, and we were leading them up to the campground, birds were singing and the sky was beginning to lighten.  Dade and Gaylord, as the drivers, somehow had passed the breathalyzer, so the cops were long gone.  Miraculously, except for some scrapes, none of the animals was hurt.  We didn’t ride any of them next day, to give them a rest, though Dade did get on that poor pony and trot around the campground, as if to cement our growing harsh opinion of him.

Once we had the horses settled in the corral, with their scrapes doctored and some oats and water, I was more than ready to crawl into my sleeping bag and put my pillow over my head until at least lunch time.  That’s when I found out that Edna, in a fit of fury and frustration with Rob, had pushed the van over the very cliff we’d saved the horses from, taking my stuff and all our food with it.  Trent had made a run down the mountain to get more food.  Edna was sound asleep and snoring on the bare dirt under a pine tree.  Meanwhile, as a lead-in for the breakfast Trent would be bringing, Rob built a fire and Lizzie opened some wine coolers, and we all lit cigarettes and hunkered down to wait.

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