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Dying to Ride

by Lenore Mitchell

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Coming Together, Falling Apart



The morning sun played hide and seek through tall ponderosas, tickling our necks, bouncing over horses’ silky manes. A solitary cloud puffed across Colorado’s blue sky, the only sounds rhythmic hoofbeats. She looked good on her horse, clearly loved it. Loved them all, had gone on and on about some foals that didn’t survive. Cared more about animals already dead and buried
than anything.
Or anyone.
This ride was a chance to finally be real, honest. At least that was the plan. But
conversation fluttered, failed.
If only she’d tried.
But no. This ride began with sunshine and promise, but by the time Rim Rock Cliff appeared, clouds shattered the day. We tied the horses, scrambled up to a ledge in light rain which quickened into a deluge as the world faded to gray. No words now. Too much said, yet not enough.
The angry sky swirled overhead, as dark as her soul. Thunder roared, as loud as her silence.
Her goddamn silence.
She could’ve saved herself, saved us both. But no. She huddled inside a poncho, lips sealed.
Wet glistened on her cheeks, maybe rain pelting against her guilt, maybe tears. But no matter.
Too late.
Lightning savaged the sky.
She stood, moved toward the ledge, looked down.
One scream, just one. Maybe hers.
Then, silence.


The hot air held the scent of alfalfa, and occasional whinnies punctuated the hum of human voices. The list of competitions on Colorado’s Western Slope grew longer every year. Making my living around horses satisfied a thirst that insisted on being quenched. I almost considered it a compliment when friends said I smelled like the barns where I spent most waking hours. My business card said it all: Margo Richards, Everything Equine. Sure, I sometimes felt like an outcast right where I grew up for preferring breeches and English saddles to the Levi’s and Western tack favored by local ranchers. But the training of horses and riders is basically the same no matter what equipment is used.
Only spring, and already the second time I’d trailered half a dozen horses and their owners seventy miles from the cool forests of home to these show grounds on the outskirts of Grand Junction. I enjoyed the excitement and camaraderie of horse shows, but all the problems back at the ranch made me feel guilty about leaving this time. I couldn’t let my riding students down, though. They got all worked up about winning. Sometimes it takes a while to realize that the reward for understanding horses goes beyond ribbons.
Except for one cute but ornery pony named Pickles, the other mares and geldings had patient eyes and willing hearts. White bands marked brained manes, black polish accented hooves. I busied myself checking tack and doling out last minute advice. My adult students were almost too serious, but the kids were more prone to giggles than frowns. Hugging away an occasional tear was part of the deal, even for some of the adults. Half past two on the show’s
final day, and I positioned myself alongside the arena railing to watch Charley, a chestnut gelding with steady gaits and a forgiving attitude. My only student in this English Pleasure class was little Nicole Jensen. The judge called for a trot, and Nicole got Charley moving and began posting, but her up-and-down movements weren’t in sync with her horse’s two-beat diagonal gait. I raised a hand to my chin. She noticed right away and sat two beats to correct her rhythm. I gave her a nod; she gave me a cute smile.
Somebody tapped my shoulder. “She doing okay, Margo?” A whisper, anxious.
“Not bad, not bad,” I said, turning to smile at Beth Jensen. Despite the day’s scorching heat and billows of dust rising behind all those hooves, Nicole’s mom always looked like she’d stepped out of some magazine. Perfect hair, sandals color-coordinated with a frou-frou sundress, wide-brimmed hat. I teased her sometimes, saying all that perfection made my teeth itch. In response, she said fashion was a foreign country to me, one I should visit. We laughed about it,
but she had me pegged. I wasted little time in front of mirrors, lived in breeches and paddock boots, twisted blonde hair into a long braid. Despite our differences, Beth and I were friends, both of us fond of her gutsy and talented ten-year-old daughter.
The judge called for a canter. Nicole cued Charley and off they went, looking smart.
“Good girl,” I whispered, just loud enough for Beth to hear. The weekend, almost over now, was a success. I closed my eyes, sighed, and had just resumed watching Nicole when another hand touched my shoulder. A large hand.
Followed by a deep voice. “Margo.”
Roy Holden loved horses but avoided most shows. More important, there was something about his tone, about that way he said my name. I whirled around.
Typical cowboy looks, tall, lean, poker-faced beneath an ever-present Stetson. Not my type, usually. But after three years together, we shared a closeness that surprised us both at first.
He’d proposed, sort of; I hedged, always. Now his lip twitched to one side in the way that meant he’d rather not say something.
“What? What’re you doing here?”
His hand tightened on my shoulder.
“It’s Bow,” he said, looking down at me, then away. “I…Sheriff Plackmon called. I drove straight here.”
“The sheriff? Why?”
He looked at me some more, silent, then took hold of my hand and tried to lead me away.
His palm felt sweaty.
“What! Tell me,” I said, swallowing around a lump that galloped in out of nowhere and slid to a halt inside my throat.
“She… She’s dead,” he said, finally, his voice low.
“No,” I whispered. “No.”
Beth gasped and clamped a hand over her mouth, but I only shook my head, hard, squeezing my eyes shut, that lump in my throat ballooning.
Ever since I was twelve, Elizabeth ‘Bow’ Bowan had been like a mother to me. Not that she’d been a hugger or a cookie baker, but she taught me everything about horses, about common sense. She’d always been there.
“She can’t be dead,” I mumbled. “No way.”
She was only forty-nine, only fifteen years older than me. She was strong, capable.
Roy drew me close, and I burrowed my face into his chest. But then I opened my eyes, stepped back, whispered. “What happened?”
“Someone found her out in the Flat Tops, Rim Rock Cliffs. Sheriff Plackmon said she’d been there, uh, for at least a day.”
“No. No,” I said again, attempting to swallow but not managing it, choking against images of her in pain before one final breath. Lying there for a day. At least. “Oh my God,” I moaned in a voice that didn’t sound like mine.
Beth grabbed my hand, whispering. “Oh Margo, I’m so sorry.”
I looked at her, bit my lip, turned to Roy. “How did they… Who found her?”
“Sheriff didn’t say. He flew out with the helicopter crew to, uh, bring her back.”
I shivered, though only seconds ago I’d been sweating under this baking sun. And then my mind began playing tricks, whisking me all the way back to when my parents died. I couldn’t go there, couldn’t stand reliving that heaviness, that disbelief I’d clung to after the plane crash and all that followed.
“Not again,” I said without realizing I’d spoken out loud.
Roy’s arms encircled me. Death had stolen my parents years ago, and now it’d come for Bow, taunting me, snatching those I loved one after another.
“Come on,” Roy whispered. “Let’s get out of here.”
I wanted to tell him and Beth everything would be all right. I wanted to say something to make them stop with the sad eyes. Sympathy made this real, inescapable.
“By the Cliffs?” I mumbled.
“Sheriff said it appears she may’ve fallen.”
I imagined her standing at the top of those tall rocks, slipping and scrambling, falling, falling.
It wasn’t like her. The area was several hours by horseback, the trail benign under the forest’s shady canopy before crossing streams and curving up hillsides. Bow and her gelding were inseparable. She must’ve ridden out there.
“Where’s Bandit?”
Roy frowned. “I don’t know.”
I glanced to the east, toward the distant mountains of home, toward forests thick with ponderosa and Douglas fir. Arid Grand Junction nurtured few trees, was by comparison a desert.
“She never rode all the way to those cliffs when it was just her and Bandit. Besides, she wouldn’t have let the remaining foals out of her sight for long, not so soon after—”
The only time I’d seen her cry was when she stood by those three graves behind the barn.
I shouldn’t have some to this show, should’ve stayed with her because of what’d happened.
Roy put an arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go, Margo.”
I turned back toward the arena, saw riders lining up to await ribbons.
“What about the final class?” I mumbled. “The horses?”
Several of my students who’d driven their own rigs stood nearby, and the looks on their faces said they’d heard everything.
“I’ll drive your rig if you want,” one said.
“Between us, we have extra room for all the horses,” another said.
I looked at them, tried to smile. Couldn’t.
“I’ll help get everyone home, too, Margo,” Beth said, sounding like she was about to cry.
“Thanks,” I murmured, wishing I could soothe her, soothe myself. But reality had shifted into a nightmare, a dark swirl cooling the summer sun with a swiftness that left me breathless.
Three foals were dead, and now so was Bow.
Roy pointed over to his red truck, the one we called the Beast. He’d brought the border collies, of course. He loved Zap and Fetch as much as I did.
“C’mon, ride with me.”
I wanted to climb in beside him, snuggle close. But I felt an inexplicable need to be alone, to act stronger than I felt. “I’ll drive my rig, but let the dogs come with me,” I said, trying to sound normal without much success.
He nodded, didn’t try to change my mind. I busied myself checking the latches and the hitch on my six-horse trailer, clinging to routine, as if that’d help. Once the dogs jumped into the cab, I settled behind the wheel of my one ton dually, shifted my mind into neutral and forced myself to concentrate on traffic, the highway, the yellow lines. Anything to keep tears from escaping.
Roy’s Beast followed, hovering in my rearview mirror.
Halfway home, the drone of a small plane startled me. Wings dipped as the thing circled overhead, and although I tried not to pay attention, it stayed visible far too long, forcing memories to resurface. The single-engine Cessna Dad was flying went down in Colorado peaks so remote and rugged that once searchers spotted the wreckage, it took several days to get there.
Someone said my parents died on impact, as if that should comfort. I had nightmares about crumpled metal and splattered blood for months. I’d worried about pain, how it felt to die.
But that happened over twenty years ago.
Time twists and then freezes when death comes, though, and images best forgotten never leave. My parents’ closed caskets rested at the mortuary that awful summer, the shiny exteriors smooth and cold against my hand. The only way I got through the funeral was by trying to believe they weren’t really inside those long boxes. Now there’d be another sad ceremony, and it wouldn’t help to be older. Maturity wouldn’t make grieving easier. I fumbled for the radio,
turned up the volume and made myself take deep breaths. But my thoughts drifted back in time.
So many memories.

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