Grandpa's Saddle

  • 05 Nov - 11 Nov, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Kyle Morton tackled the garage cleanup with the energy and vicious determination he normally devoted to corporate takeovers, but with far less planning and organisation. He slammed old tools around, savagely kicked boxes, stomped and swore. He would have to sell this house to meet some debts. Christ, but his life was a mess.

"Take that, Shirlee, that's for you!" He hurled plastic flower pots, floral foam, peat pellets, and all the other debris of his soon-to-be-ex-wife's gardening hobby into a trash bag. "You spent more time with your stupid flowers than you ever did with me."

And you were too involved with business to spend time with your wife and daughters!

The echo of arguments past clattered through his head like pachinko balls rattling down the nails on the board. He gritted his teeth, tied off the bag of garden junk and tossed it into the trailer he'd rented for the cleanup. Tossed his marriage.

Hanging on a wall were two tiny pink tricycles from when the twins were small. Why in heaven's name were they keeping those? He grabbed them and threw them into the trailer so hard they bounced, sending a cloud of dust into the mid-day sun. Tossed his family.

He yanked at a dusty green plastic tarp in the far corner of the garage and exposed an old mouse-chewed western saddle, the leather dried and stiff and worn, the wooden stirrups cracked, the conches rusted almost through. It had belonged to his grandfather.

"You mind that old saddle, Son," his father had said when he passed the saddle on to Kyle. "She'll give you one good ride, that's all, just one." He had refused to explain. Kyle had thrown a tarp over the old saddle and the sawhorse-thing it sat on, shoved it into a corner of the garage, and forgotten it. His dad had died shortly after that, just before Clarissa and Sharlee were born; hadn't lived to see his grandkids. Kyle had been busy – a quick dash to the funeral, a quick dash back to another meeting. He hadn't really thought of his father since.

His anger thinned like smoke from a dying fire, leaving only grey ashes of sadness, black charcoal of despair. Too busy to mourn his father's death. Too busy to play with his children. Too busy to love his wife. Talk about self-centered idiots.

He missed the girls. Although he tried hard to deny it, he missed Shirlee too. There was an empty hole in his heart in the shape of two little girls and a beautiful woman. He'd tried to plaster over that hole with deals and mergers and negotiations – no, that was not quite true; the cover had been status and wealth and the showy rewards of a big house and a Lamborghini and a villa in Nuevo Vallarta; but the hole was like a jungle pit trap, the sharpened stakes of loneliness and regret camouflaged with banana leaves and grass.

How had things gone so far off the rails? He was useless as a husband and father, his business was failing, he was drinking far more than was good for him, and he owed more money to more people than he'd ever imagined possible. Thirty-one years old and his life was a mess. How had it all gone so wrong?

On a sudden impulse, he swung his leg over the saddle and set his feet into the stirrups. He rested his hand on the saddle horn, closed his eyes, and shook his head in chagrin. Maybe that was what his father had meant. You only got one chance to ride through life. You only got one good ride. Somehow, he'd ridden off the trail.

"Howdy, mister! Gol dang, how in tarnation did ya sneak up on me like that? Never seen nor heard ya comin."

Kyle blinked in astonishment at the rangy, tow-haired young cowboy off to his left, leaning on a fence post. A strand of barbed wire ran past his feet off into the distant grassy plains.

'Well, mister, you gonna just sit there lollygagging' or are you gonna git off an' pitch in?"

Kyle's jaw sagged when he realised that under the old saddle was not a wooden support but a large black horse.

"You bin drinkin' deadshot, mister? Shut yer latchpan an' look lively. This here barb wire fence ain't gonna plant itself."

Kyle carefully climbed down from the horse and paused, not sure what to do next. He looked around in confusion. "Uh, howdy," he greeted the boy.

"Mister, are you plumb loco? Yer outfit says yer a cow puncher but ya act like the village idiot. No offense meant."

Outfit? Kyle glanced down at his clothes. Gone were his Loro Piana tan chinos, pale blue Versace shirt, and brown Gucci Screeners. In their place he wore sturdy blue jeans over scuffed boots, a red checkered long-sleeved shirt, and leather gloves--an outfit almost identical to that of the young man, who wore a black derby hat. Kyle remove his own hat and studied it: a wide-brimmed, shapeless brown bowl, sweat-stained and dusty. Didn't anybody wear Stetsons? He shrugged and jammed it back on his head.

"I'm sorry, son," he said. "But I'm really confused. Where are we? And, uh, what year is this?"

"Careful who yer callin' 'son', mister. I may look like I'm between hay and grass but I been forkin' my own broncs since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. And we're standin' here in Clay County, Kansas in the year of our Lord eighteen hunderd and ninety-five."

Kyle's head spun and he reached out to his horse for support. The animal moved away and Kyle staggered and almost fell.

"Mister, you bin in the sun?" Concerned, the cowboy left his fence post and came to offer a hand to Kyle. "I got some cold belly-wash, brewed fresh at sun-up."

"No, no, I'm fine. This is a shock, that's all. Hard to get used to."

"You got a handle, mister? I'm Clayton Dorvalle, go by Clay." The boy--young man--had a grip like the jaws of a vice.

"Kyle Morton. Nice to meet you."

"Same here. You from out east? You talk a bit odd, like."

"New York. Manhattan."

"Guess that 'splains things. Anyway, enough of this jaw-wobblin'. Work's callin'."

Clay led Kyle over to where the barbed wire lay on the ground. "Grab that hole-digger," he ordered, pointing to a long-handled tool on the ground by the nearest post. He paced off four long steps and dug his heel in to mark the spot. "Dig here, foot, foot and a half deep."

Kyle picked up the tool. Its use was obvious – hinged like scissors, two little shovel-blades on the bottom and long handles on the top. Open the handles, take a bite of dirt, close the handles, lift it up, dump the dirt. He took a scoop out at Clay's heel-mark.

Clay watched and sighed. "Never used no clamshell digger, have ya? Here, gimme, watch." He jabbed the tool hard into the soil, clamped the handles with a twist, hoisted the tool up and over, dumped a pile of dirt in one smooth operation. In three bites, he was down below the level of the blades. In five bites, he was done.

"Like that, see? Purty easy here, good soil, not too many rocks. Now fetch that post, there."

Kyle brought over the post. Clay dropped it into the hole, scuffed dirt from the pile into the hole, upended the digger to tamp it in, and finally stamped it down all around the post.

"Got the gist of 'er?" Kyle nodded numbly. "Good. Your turn. You got six posts left. I'm gonna walk back to the wagon and haul more posts." He turned and followed the line of planted posts into the distance.

Well, what else have I got to do? Kyle thought. He paced off four steps through the tall grass and heeled a mark in the dirt. Back home, Kyle had worked out in the gym for thirty minutes a day and played handball twice a week. He figured he was in shape.

It took him eight stabs to make the hole deep enough. By the time he had set the remaining posts, he was worn out.

Clay drove up with the wagon, had Kyle climb in ("Don't reckon ya know how to drive a wagon, no offense meant.") and throw out a post every twenty feet or so. They left the wagon, walked back to the line, and spent the rest of the afternoon planting posts, sweating in the sun and chatting.

Clay had been orphaned at ten and had pretty much raised himself. "Had my maw long enough as a button to learn right from wrong and learn some letters and numbers. Paw had time to beat some sense into me, teach me how to work and stick to a thing. Had the luck to work for some ace-up gents, taught me something of business and organizin'. Got my eye on a little spread up north-west of here, got my boss to file on it and in three more years I can settle up and buy it out. Got my eye on a little filly next burg over, says she'll wait for me."

The boy's determination and sense of purpose somehow rankled. Kyle had felt that way at eighteen, ready to conquer the world. He had kicked, bit, scrambled, back-stabbed, connived and worked his ass off and made his first million by twenty-seven. But somehow, it didn't seem the same. Clay was working to build something. Kyle had just worked to... get. To acquire. To take. To have. To possess. All the toys and symbols of success. All the banana leaves to pile over the pit of an empty life.

They talked – at least, Clay talked – of local politics and ranching and rains and droughts and the endless wind on the Kansas plains; since Kyle knew nothing of such matters, he nodded and grunted and muttered assent where it seemed appropriate. Eventually he mentioned that he had a wife and family back east.

Clay nodded his approval. "Lotsa grass widders out west. Man sets out to build a stake, find a spread, make a new life. Too many of 'em cash in an' end up buzzard bait. Break a leg, catch an Injun arrer, git lost in a blizzard. You find yer Eldorado, mister, you bring that family west. You love 'em hard, buss 'em every chance you get. It's a hard life out here, but it's a good life. Man can make whutever a man can do."

Kyle nodded, but didn't correct the boy about his motivations. Shirlee had been a trophy wife, at first, though she proved far too good for him. He had known she loved him deeply, had come to love her in return, though he had shown it poorly. The twins, such beautiful little creatures, had burrowed into his heart. He had known how he hurt Shirlee, known he was losing her. He had seen the hurt on his daughter's faces when he missed their birthday. Yet somehow the clamor of things and the excitement of acquisition had pulled him away, like an addict desperate for the next fix.

Those realisations pricked at him, made him angry at himself, and he took out has anger on the post-holes.

A few minutes in the gym was nothing compared to hard physical labor from noon to dusk. By the end of the day, he was exhausted.

"I'm glad ya ain't no coffee-boiler," Clay said as they cleaned up and loaded gear into the wagon for the ride to the ranch, Kyle staggering under the weight of half a spool of barbed wire. "Yep, ya shore pulled yer weight. I figured ya for a green-horn, but by gum, ya earned yer Lincoln-skins today."

Kyle had no idea what that meant, but he took it for a compliment. He was so tired that he needed Clay's help to get onto his horse.

He found himself in his dusk-darkened garage, surrounded by clutter.

Every muscle in his body ached. He stared at his hands, still cramped and half-curled from gripping the digger handles, and moved to wipe non-existent sweat from his forehead. He lacked the strength to climb off the old saddle, so he sat, panting, shivering from exhaustion and shock.

You mind that old saddle,

Son. She'll give you one good ride, that's all, just one.

It was a hell of a ride, Dad.

You find yer Eldorado,

mister, you bring that family west. You love 'em hard, buss 'em every chance you get. It's a hard life, but it's a good life. A man can make whutever a man can do.

How strange to get such advice from a boy--no,

a man--half his age.

He suddenly realized that

he had found his Eldorado, and though it would be a long, hard slog, he knew the trail he wanted to ride.

He dragged his cell phone out of his hip pocket and punched in Shirlee's number.

- Anonymous