It was the first day of chill, the ashy sharpening that portends autumn, the day the horses returned. It had been raining finally for the last hours—the dark clouds caught high in the mountains, the mists lower, in the trees—and we were standing at the kitchen windows fretting over the snap beans when Tom came running up over the ridge, his hands in the air.
Three years before when it had seemed they weren’t returning, we had told the children that this particular herd, the young dapples with Gwenny at their head, were like birds, that come spring they moved north to find the better pastures and leave ours to rest. We said we believed they’d be back at the changing of the leaves, and we hoped the children—Tom was only twelve then, and easily distracted—would have forgotten this promise by the end of August.
For, of course, it was all nonsense—either they’d been rustled, or they’d snuck over the downed tree on the fence in the high pasture and wandered long into the national forest. You swore you’d heard a diesel that night in your sleep, and, though I’d heard no axles over the drive (strange, as it needed grading), I believed you.
But Tom came hollering, wind-milling over the new-wet ground, and, behind him, the gray horses were running like pushed, steam coming off them. When they reached the dip at the house Tom fell to a walk, and they quit too, like they’d hit a wall, and bent their heads to the grass. He was panting when he pushed through the door, creaking, as we hadn’t taken down the screen yet, and we held up our hands to let him catch his breath.
“Is it our brand?”
Tom nodded, and we followed him back outside. The horses stood to be touched, hands down the cool, tight bones of their cannons. They had burs in their forelocks and ears and, on their shoulders, our rocking T. Only Gwenny of them had paled, whiter except on her haunches and forelegs where the gray was dark but white-veined, as if she’d been hung up in a spider’s web. It had been three and a half years they’d been gone.
We sent Tom for the gate to the hay meadow and got behind them, slapping our thighs. They picked their heads up out of the plumped grass and moved easily before us. We watched for a hitch among their hocks, for a stiffness in the play of their pasterns, but they were all sound. They limbered their necks to one another, not playing, not kicking, not even paired.
As we neared the open gate, Tom standing in it, his hands on the wet-dark thighs of his Wranglers, the horses thinned and, Gwenny first, streamed through into the field. The other horses were still in the high pasture, though they’d begun to hide in the trees for the residual grasses and at the springs for the peppery ferns. The grass here was almost ready for them and, with the rain, gave a semblance of total readiness, the field green and beaded with the soft rumpling of the irrigation channels through it.
We hung on the creosote-rails and watched them. Tom wouldn’t speak. His thick-skinned hands were crossed on his chest, his elbows over the top rail, and we could see his eyes watering a bit even in the filtered cloud-light. “They were just so quiet,” he would say later, “and when they were drinking they didn’t even suck it hard, they didn’t make a sound.” And he would be right, they were silent, even their hooves quiet on the sodden ground. When they ducked their heads into the channels, only their eyes and ears and the smooth round of their jawbones showed above the grass. We knew that we’d dream later of drinking horses, beasts severed in the field.
from my short story “The Winter Horses," published in