Johnny America




Illustration of two horses rearing.

“So what’s the name of my horse?” I asked the young wran­gler guide. “I’d like to say it along with my commands.”

I was try­ing to seem more in charge since my wife had told me I looked Qua­si­mo­do-crooked on the horse and that I was falling so far back in our line that her horse was try­ing to bite my horse and then me. So I straight­ened up and rode up to our guide.


“Why Killer?”

“I’ll tell you the rea­son for the name later.”

“Why lat­er?”

“I’ll tell you that lat­er too.”

I hadn’t want­ed to go on the ride, but my wife begged me. She had sched­uled it three days be­fore, but four oth­er rid­ers had can­celled and Mr. “I’ll tell you lat­er” would not go if at least one oth­er per­son be­sides my wife didn’t ride along (and pay). I hadn’t been on a horse since my twen­ties, when drink­ing sev­er­al beers made it a breeze. I had giv­en up rid­ing and beer part­ly be­cause both caused me ter­rif­ic heart­burn. But try­ing to be a good hus­band, I Tumsed-up, ate a very light break­fast, and hoped for the best.

We were at a buf­fa­lo ranch in south­ern Col­orado, re­al­ly a dude re­sort with a small buf­fa­lo herd. I was still a lit­tle ner­vous as we rode out past part of that herd when Killer seemed too in­ter­est­ed in the buf­fa­lo. And then the crooked back com­ment, which wasn’t un­usu­al from my in­creas­ing­ly blunt and cranky wife. 

We rode out in­to the dunes of Col­orado, and I thought we could as eas­i­ly have been in North Africa. The beau­ty stunned me. Both my wife and our guide stepped it up to a can­ter and then a run, the guide say­ing it was the “sweet­est part of a horse.” 

“Come on, sis­sy, pick it up,” my wife yelled back.

I was just try­ing to stay on. I watched her and thought she was be­com­ing as ter­rif­ic a rid­er as she was a bitch. They raced ahead with in­so­lent ease and were talk­ing close to­geth­er when I came up in what seemed like an hour.

The rest of the ride was un­event­ful, ex­cept for the vast sway of as­ton­ish­ing dunes. I was al­most sor­ry when we were com­ing back to the barn. When we were close enough, clat­ter­ing over a barn drain­ing ditch, I asked again.

“So, the name, Killer?” I said.

“Some drunk guy was try­ing to get the horse to rear up, make him feel like John Wayne, and kept pulling on the reins un­til your horse just fell on his back. Killed the guy. His own fault. You can see he’s a per­fect­ly nice palomi­no. I didn’t want to make you nervous”

“Thanks for wait­ing to tell me.”

“No prob­lem.”

It took me near­ly an hour in the hot tub to re­lax mus­cles, some I didn’t even know I had. As I was soak­ing, my wife ex­plained how we would go down to San­ta Fe and what we would do there. And how I should avoid overeat­ing red meat and not sit out in the pa­tio tonight to watch the stars and should spend the time with her. How it would be more “ro­man­tic.”

I was start­ing to wish that she had been the drunk on Killer. And won­dered at any pos­si­bil­i­ties. She had stopped ha­rangu­ing me about rid­ing to­mor­row since oth­ers had signed up, and thus she “wouldn’t be slowed down” by my “timid rid­ing.” She fin­ished by say­ing with a cheeky laugh, “I’ll ride Killer.”

Hav­ing giv­en up on ro­mance again that night, I was gaz­ing at that beau­ti­ful, un­pol­lut­ed Col­orado heav­en— like my own plan­e­tar­i­um. Rest­ful, med­i­ta­tive. About ten o’clock, af­ter my wife came back from who knows where and an­nounced she was go­ing to sleep, I was told I should be ex­tra qui­et when I came to bed. I de­cid­ed to walk down to the barn and say hel­lo to good old Killer. I’d seen a lot of cow­boy movies grow­ing up; some in­clud­ed in­cit­ing a horse to rear and buck. So on the way down, I picked up some rough veg­e­ta­tion that could pass for a burr.

For a city guy like me, barns are prim­i­tive in day­time. At night they are pre­his­toric. And the smell: Ugh. But there the hors­es all were, neigh­ing soft­ly to each oth­er. Made me think of my daugh­ter and her girl­friends at a sleepover.

My burr plan was col­laps­ing since it could on­ly be ef­fect­ed when the hors­es were sad­dled the next day. I felt fool­ish com­ing up with such a stu­pid plan any­way and re­mem­ber ac­tu­al­ly hit­ting my head against a splin­ter­ing post. But I was still an­gry at my wife. Had she winked at the guide? My rot­ten mood dis­si­pat­ed the longer I stayed in the barn. The an­i­mals seemed to be em­a­nat­ing a more pleas­ant, peace­ful scent, horse and leather over­tak­ing the ma­nure. I didn’t see Killer, but was close to a big roan mare, and wished I had a car­rot or some­thing to give her Won­der­ing if I could pull it off with­out get­ting bitten.

I’m not crazy enough to think the hors­es were talk­ing to me, but the peace of the scene was hav­ing an ef­fect. I start­ed to qui­et my fan­ta­sy that my wife was do­ing some­thing fast, oth­er than rid­ing, with a good-look­ing young wran­gler. And maybe I should be con­nect­ing to oth­er women. We re­al­ly had mar­ried as sex and drink­ing part­ners. Both of those fa­vorites had run their course.

“Look­ing for Killer?” Our young horse guide near­ly made me jump.

“Yeah, and maybe a car­rot to give him.” I tried to sound like this would be a nor­mal thing for me to do.

“It’s a lit­tle late for rustling up food for the an­i­mals, but I’m glad you are feel­ing more com­fort­able with them.”

“I guess I was a lit­tle tight to­day. Wasn’t com­fort­able mak­ing him run.”

“You didn’t have to make him. He would have loved to just be let go.” He smiled. “It’s re­al­ly good ad­vice for much of our lives,” he added.

“Aren’t you the philoso­pher,” I said, more as an accusation.

“Psy­chol­o­gy. Go­ing back next week for the last trimester of my master’s de­gree. Maybe that’s why I feel I can talk to the guests.”

“You think I try to rein in my wife too much.”

“More like rein­ing in your­self.” The wran­gler then, al­most rude­ly, turned and walked away. He must have felt confident.

The next year, af­ter our di­vorce, I was telling the sto­ry of Killer and how he fin­ished off that drunk guy to a sea­soned rid­er. He said it nev­er happened. 

“Hors­es just don’t do those things, es­pe­cial­ly dude ranch hors­es. No­body got killed,” he reiterated.

“Some­thing did,” I said.

Filed under Fiction on May 20th, 2022

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