Dad was infamous for the “jobs” he created for us on weekends, vacations, or any time there was a spare moment, especially if he heard giggling. Back then I thought nothing of these tasks: sharpening knives and tool blades with a massive kick-wheel whetstone; watering an acre of five-gallon saplings with a weak hose in the blistering sun; driving the open-topped Jeep alone at age ten loaded with alfalfa to feed cattle, horse blankets piled high on the driver’s seat so I could see where I was going. It all seemed normal to me.
This particular day, one week before my 12th birthday, my job was to test-ride Oakie—a Quarter Horse Dad had won gambling. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I knew nothing about this horse, and I bet Dad didn’t either. The way I saw it, this job could go well, or it could land me in the hospital. Didn’t matter. If Dad told me I had to do it, I had to show up.
As the screen door closed behind me, the warm wind lifted the branches of the Ponderosa pines, and they, in turn, whispered their stories to each other. I loved that wind voice, like a rush of river water that washed away my darker thoughts, and I longed to linger with the trees. But I had this chore to do.
As I walked in the direction of the old, spreading oak, I passed the clothesline, loaded with t-shirts and socks too heavy to move in the afternoon breeze. Looking at my watch, I quickened my pace. I couldn’t be late. This final chore of the day was for both of us.
I spied Dad beneath the limbs of the oak stroking Oakie’s neck, his rough hand moving along the horse’s chestnut withers and back, down his left hind leg, lifting and inspecting the hoof. Dad seemed pleased. I relaxed. Maybe this would go well.
“His past owner says Oakie’s never used a bridle…only this hackamore.” Dad jangled a jumble of leather in front of me. It looked a lot like a horse’s halter, only with more straps. “Let’s see how you do with this.” He handed it to me.
My fingers shook. He expected me to mount a contraption I’d never seen before on Oakie’s head. I fumbled with the leather, aided by Oakie, who smelled his familiar hackamore and nudged his graying nose forward—a gesture I took for kindness. It took me a few tries, but as I secured the final buckle and stepped back, Oakie sighed and blew his soft oat breath on my skin. I smiled and looked into his eyes. How many people had he loved over the years?
I wanted to wrap my arms around his neck, but Dad would have seen this as weakness. I grabbed the reins and lifted myself up into the saddle. From up there the hackamore looked just like any ordinary bridle, fitting behind his ears just so, but I frowned at the tufts of his auburn mane poking awkwardly through the straps at angles. Oakie didn’t seem to mind.
I reached forward and pulled his mane from the straps, smoothing and rubbing his neck out of view of Dad. “How does a hackamore work, Dad?” It didn’t have a metal bit at all; no chance of harming his soft mouth. I liked the idea of this gentler tack.
A slow smile formed on Dad’s lips as he dropped his cigarette to the red dirt and gave it a crushing twist with his boot. These were the lips he’d worn a month earlier when he’d hoisted my heifer up the oak tree and slit her belly, her blood oozing all over Dad’s feet. Now what was he going to do? His movements were graceful, almost rehearsed, as he slipped into action. I recognized the familiar condescending tilt of his head, a facial tic that meant I’d been found wanting and in need of a lesson. I settled into the saddle, awaiting instruction. My stomach churned but I forced myself to sit tall.
Oakie jerked his head in alarm as Dad quickly stepped forward, leaning his chest against my right leg, pinning it against Oakie’s side.
Dad spoke with a tone that drew me in and soothed my fears. This was the voice I loved. The voice he used as we gathered on the back lawn, one of his hands on the huge telescope, the other pointing to the night sky. What had I been worrying about?
“Instead of a metal bit inside the horse’s mouth, there’s a leather strap over his nose. When you pull the reins, pressure is applied to the most sensitive part of his face. And if you pull hard enough, it makes it difficult for the horse to breathe. Here, let me show you.” His hands reached for my face.
Dad gripped my chin with his left hand—a move that froze me to the saddle. That’s when time slowed down. His right hand slowly floated toward my face. I saw his dirty nails, a gash on a knuckle, the little blond hairs on his callused skin. My eyes expanded as his right thumb came to rest on my left nostril. What was he doing?
Dad crushed my nose closed, blocking the airflow. Shocked into silence, I opened my mouth to breathe, but I did not cry out. If I had, would he have stopped?
He dug his ragged thumbnail into my flesh and slowly carved out a crescent of skin across the bridge of my nose. There was a brief look in his eyes that I’d like to think was surprise at what he’d done. But he only stepped back and wiped my blood on his jeans. He cocked his head. “Now do you understand?”
My nose was on fire. Hell, I was on fire. Every part of me burned to respond. I wanted to whip him with my reins or kick him hard in the face with the tip of my boot. Instead I lifted my chin, aware of the level of defiance he would find tolerable. Silence was my armor.
I looked down at Dad as he leaned against the trunk of the spreading oak, striking a match for the cigarette already in the grip of his lips. My stomach swirled at his casual stance, as if we had just had a nice father-daughter chat. Why didn’t I speak up? What would I say if I did?
I turned Oakie away from the tree, away from Dad, protecting us both. In the pasture my nose throbbed, but I did my job, putting Oakie through the motions of cattle work, and together we were brilliant: opening and closing gates while remaining in the saddle; backing up ten strides; cantering figure eights around barrels; moving around the other horses grazing or standing in groups, their tails swatting flies, eyes half closed in the heat.
Occasionally blood dripped from my nose, a reminder of what had taken place. But the flow soon ceased, my pain pillowed by the awareness that Oakie was my perfect companion—the kind that arrives right when you need him to.