Ghost Canyon

By Jane Dominick

I look up the sandstone cliff and see him there, one knee bent, jeans taut, as he slowly ascends to the next plateau. The two dogs scramble with him. The sun feels sleepy warm after our sandwiches and the ride in, just long enough to stretch the leg muscles and feel the relaxed stride of the horses. They stand placidly below, their halter ropes tied to scrub cedar branches that are smaller than the ropes. One black, one bay, both dozing, chins drooped.

This spot I love with an aching heart. My friend Mark introduced me to it, a place he roamed as a boy. A large basin surrounded by sandstone cliffs, the interior grass and sagebrush covered. Dry Creek cuts a wide, deep meander through it, the banks too steep in places to descend. Were it not for snakes, I’d want to walk the creek bed, sure I’d find a buffalo skull or other artifact stuck in the sandy clay of its sheer banks. The wind blows here and makes you hunker down at times, dismount to tie the horses in a gulch. Mark’s ashes are buried on a bluff not far from where we are.

I try to pull away from such sad thoughts, but sadness and a queasy fear lie just behind my eyes and in my gut today. It’s the first time I’ve been with Jim since February when he told me – after we’d made love – that he was leaving. We’d been together since a few months after meeting. There was much joy, and, in spite of the pain in our relationship, I still believed in the truth of our love. When he left, he took the black filly to work with and ride some as we had planned before the split. This day mixes and muddles my feelings, softens them with animal gladness: the sun, the beauty of this isolated spot, muscles relaxed after riding, the high of riding the filly for the first time, and a hint of damnable hope.

I pull myself to the next ledge and grab the rough bark of a pine to gain my balance. Gain my balance, that’s a laugh. All day Jim and I have circled one another like two dogs meeting, not sure if we should fight or not. Out of habit, my eyes search the ground for any piece of shiny rock. The toes of my boots push aside some needles from the tree. Tufts of grass begin to show green. Tiny flowers, white and yellow, open on a minute moss-like plant. In a few weeks, these sandstone ledges will be alight with their bonsai rock gardens. Few will see them but rabbits, ravens, and hawks, maybe a few mule deer and antelope nibbling at the plants.

Stooping for a closer look, I turn over a flint-gray piece of rock, hold it, let it drop. The dogs bark, I glance up and see the black one, tongue hanging, make sure I’m still around. I know he’d leave me in a second if Jim called; otherwise, he is my dog. Once we four lived together as a family. Today when he saw Jim and his red dog, he leapt on them, tail flailing, yipping excitement. No inhibitions in him.

Instead of following Jim and the two dogs as I long to, I walk along the ridge, my eyes perusing sandy ground, looking for artifacts, a connection with others who’ve been here. A black shine stops me. I walk back and bend to pick it up. A piece of black obsidian, about an inch long, a partly worked flake no doubt from a larger piece. This would be a place to hunt, sit on the cliff, survey the grassy field below, one ledge above the stream, a place for animals to graze and bask in the day as we are, a place to wait for prey and work on a point or spearhead. This flake is almost opaque. I turn it in my fingers, feel its sharp edges, wonder how it came to be here, perhaps from a hundred or more miles away in Yellowstone, though I’ve heard there are other obsidian sources in the northern Rockies. Metamorphosed rock, like glass. Like I feel.

I know I ought to drop it, leave it here where it belongs, but I hold onto it instead and climb to another level of the ledge. The dogs skitter down, followed by Jim, who moves in my direction.

“What you got?” he asks, before I can offer to share my gem.

“Oh, just a chip,” I say, and hold out my palm for him to see. He lifts it from my hand, holds it between thumb and forefinger, those fingers I have known.

“Eagle eye. You always find something,” he says, looking up from the chip to me. “A nice one.” He studies my face for a few seconds, then adds, “Can I keep it?”

Caught off guard, I say, “Sure.”

* * * * *

“I’d like to bring the filly up this weekend,” he says. I have to come there anyway, and she’s ready. You’ll like her. I think she’ll be like her mother was – nice disposition, gentle, maybe a little lazy. A good horse for you.”

“Okay,” I manage to respond, still startled to hear his voice when I’d picked up the phone. We make a plan to meet at the public corrals. Saturday morning.

On Saturday, I pull up, stopping my trailer near the horses tied to his old red one. My dog quivers and moans until I open the truck door for him to bolt. He leaps on Jim, his high pitched bark unceasing, his tail a speeded up metronome. Jim’s dog joins in, barking and scrambling onto both. I sit in the cab for a second, take a breath, step out, repeating in my mind, “You can do this; you can do this; you can do this.”

“Hi,” he shouts. I’d like to emulate the dogs, but catch myself and slowly walk toward the horses and not to him.

“Hello,” I answer. The filly turns and looks at me. She’s grown, now stands as tall as A.J., the bay tied beside her. The red dog runs to me and turns herself in tight circles to be patted. A.J. nickers softly, asking for a hand-out which I didn’t bring. What a fine-boned horse he is, aristocratic head with a wisp of white curled in a cow-lick on his forehead. A dark and sleek and handsome animal.

My best horse, I think, and I was fool enough to give him to this person. Our first Christmas together, in love, we’d gone to give the horses treats, wondering aloud what they’d discussed at midnight when animals are supposed to talk. We stood among them, dispensing sweet cubes. On impulse, I tied an orange baling twine around A.J.’s neck and turned to Jim, saying “Merry Christmas. I love you.”

“No,” he said, “I can’t accept.” But he did and took the horse when he left. By then it was his horse. I’d thought we’d never be apart, my mind in fairy land, another chance, another love, this one forever. What a dumb person I am, I think today.

“Let me show you what she can do,” he says, interrupting my thoughts. “Did you bring your saddle?”

“Yes,” I answer and turn to the pick-up. I drag the saddle to the horses. Jim holds the filly’s halter rope while I shake out the pad and place it on her back.

“Don’t forget, she’s a colt. You gotta’ be careful when you cinch her. She knows how to blow, too.”

I swing the saddle onto her back. She moves forward, as I expect, but Jim has the halter rope in hand. The saddle’s heavy; I can hardly lift it, but I know she’s used to Jim’s which is even heavier. I walk around the filly’s butt, placing a hand on it, speaking softly. When I pull the latigo tight enough to touch her belly, she kicks at it with her left hind leg.

“Easy, girl,” I intone in what-I-hope-is-a-soothing voice and loosely buckle the back cinch. I pull the front cinch once again, a little tighter. She moves away but does not kick. Then, Jim offers me a headstall.

“I’ve used this bit on her. You can have it.”

“Okay,” I say, taking it from him. “Thanks. We can put it on one of my headstalls.”

“Now, she doesn’t take it easy yet.”

After we finish tacking her, Jim leads her into the arena and starts to mount. The filly looks so small, with Jim by her side. I see he has to turn her a few times before she’ll stand, then swings easily into the saddle, my stirrups short. He walks her around the arena, then trots her, then finally pushes her into a canter.

“You’ll be glad to know she hates to canter. She’ll never run away with you. She much prefers the trot,” he shouts. Then, to my dread, “I want you to ride her.”

Repeating my mantra, I move inside the arena and take her reins. Jim looks at me and smiles. “She’s going to be a good horse, don’t you think?” I nod my assent and gingerly place my foot in the stirrup, shorten the rein, grab a hank of mane and swing onto the saddle, pushing my right boot toe into the other stirrup.

“Okay,” I say, hoping my words belie my feelings.

The filly moves off, walking until I press my heels slightly and ask for a trot. She trots slow motion around the arena while I catch her rhythm and try to post. She is relaxed, ears forward, moving, turning. I feel her warmth, her rhythm between my legs; we work together. “She doesn’t rein well yet,” Jim shouts. “Just plow rein her.”

We make a few more circles before I pull her to the side and ask her to stop. She knows “whoa” well. Jim looks up to me, his face grinning with pride. “Nice, huh? So. Do you like her?”

“Yes,” I say, feeling high from riding this nearly three-year-old, the last foal of the mare I’d loved, my first horse. Jim holds the bridle as I swing off, planting a foot on the ground with some relief.

“What do you say we get some sandwiches, fill our water bottles, and take a ride in the basin?” he asks. Feeling high must be contagious. But I do not know how I feel now. Numb. One ordeal over, why ask for another? Yet part of me longs to return to the place I love to roam, the place where we often rode together, to partake of this warm, early spring day.

“All right,” I say, forsaking caution.

We load the horses into my trailer, larger than his, and stop by a market for some sandwiches and drinks before we head out. Taking the dirt road onto a high bench where you can see the mountains of the basin in every direction, we drive across Dry Creek to a familiar spot and park the trailer. We unload the horses and, while he tacks A.J., I walk around with the filly. Jim holds her while I mount, then gets on A.J. and we head onto the trail toward the petroglyphs and Ghost Canyon, the name I call the place Mark loved and where his ashes lie. The filly walks well and when Jim asks me if I want to trot, I’m ready to comply. We jog a quarter mile or so, then try a canter which, to my relief, I find is hard to get my horse to stay in. He’s right, I think, this horse won’t take off on me. I like her laziness, as Jim calls it.

We cover familiar ground. But not to the filly who half-heartedly shies at the first unexpected sandstone jutting. We walk, jog, canter, cross two old streambeds and cut across to Ghost Canyon the back way. It’s warm, I sit astride a horse and move with it, this horse I’ve known since it foaled. Dogs run along, horse savvy, keeping their distance, occasionally bolting for a rabbit, startling the horses for a second. A huge sage grouse jets from beneath a sagebrush and nearly unseats us.

We turn into a draw just before Ghost Canyon, a spot we’ve never explored. It looks inviting, grassy, sandstone cliffs rising, a few cedar and pine along the bottom and moving up the cliffs. Ledges, multi-layered. Sand and dark green beneath a gentian blue sky with only one white wisp of cloud.

We tie the horses to a scrub cedar. The filly is glad to stop and brushes against the cedar to scratch herself, releasing its acrid smell. We loosen cinches, get our sandwiches and drinks from the saddlebags and climb up the first ledge to a level spot. Leaning back against warm sandstone, stretching legs unused to riding, soaking in the sun as we eat lunch, we do not talk, but settle into a more-or-less comfortable silence. The dogs plop down nearby in hopes of hand-outs.

We make small talk instead of the big talk that hovers and, after eating, get up to move around. Jim starts to climb while I walk the ridge we’re on towards its overlook into the basin. My eyes search the ground. I won’t let myself follow him with devotion as the dogs do.

* * * * *

Jim slips the artifact into the pocket of his jeans and, by unspoken consent, we start down toward the horses. The angle of the sun is lower. Both horses doze where they stand and we speak to them so they’ll know we’re coming. As we collect ourselves, tighten cinches, stow gear, put headstalls back on, A.J. paws impatiently, ready to head out. The filly doesn’t know the routine yet but picks up on his eagerness. When I swing onto her back, she nearly staggers, still unused to carrying and balancing weight. We start off after A.J. who walks out in front. I realize I haven’t performed the ritual of visiting Mark’s grave, the place I buried his ashes in the sand beneath the snow. I look back toward the ridge we haven’t gone to.

The ride back is long and quiet. All four creatures are slightly tired and settle into a steady pace. The dogs still run if they see a rabbit but less whole-heartedly. The filly walks well at first, looking around alertly, not letting A.J. get too far ahead. We humans sink into our own thoughts.

I wonder what his are. He’s offered little information, but my intuition senses subtle change more than only distance. As if he read my thoughts, he drops A.J. back to ride beside me. “Nice day,” he offers.

“Yeah, it is.”

“I ought to tell you that I’m moving. Well, not leaving, but leaving my little house there and moving in with…a friend.”

“Oh,” I manage.”

“It makes sense,” he adds. I’m sure it does, I think, just not to me.

We ride in quiet a few paces. I can’t look him in the face or have him see mine. “Let’s trot a little,” I suggest. We click to our horses and jog on the soft, sandy road. Soon, he pulls ahead again. I concentrate on sandstone and clear blue sky and breathing regularly.

When the filly stumbles, nearly falls down, it jerks me from my study. I realize that she’s had enough and needs to stop, but we can’t until we get to the trailer. I urge her on, feeling a little guilt at not realizing we’d taken her on a long trail ride for her first real outing. Too self-absorbed, I think, but know she’s all right. I haven’t hurt her, just worn her out.

The silver trailer gleams into view and A.J. heads for it with alacrity. The filly and I drag along behind. I face another separation.

With a soft “whoa,” I stop the filly and swing out of the saddle, tie the reins on the horn and untie her halter rope to lead her. She nuzzles my shoulder. The sand is soft; my boots sink in and resist each step. From the corner of my eye, I see the rattler ahead before I hear it. It is big – slowly coils and buzzes us. The filly freezes, but I lead her away, giving the snake a wide berth, encouraging her with my voice. We walk on.

When the lead rope pulls, I glance behind my shoulder at this horse. She looks young, tired, dependent. I am moved by a surge of feeling – for her and for the round-about gift of her to ride.

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Categories: Fiction, Issue 5 | Leave a comment

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