November 4, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson

Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian

“What does ‘AQHA 1990 gelding, bred Actual Spark’ mean”?

“It means someone has a neutered ten-year-old American quarterhorse, sired by Actual Spark, for sale. Why?”

Rhonda looked up from the Casper Star-Tribune she held spread in her lap.

“I want to buy a horse.”

“What sense does that make? You’re moving back to California in less than two months.”

“I’ll take him with me. Horses aren’t just for Wyoming rednecks, you know.”

“Well, if you’re going to buy a horse, for God’s sake don’t get a quarterhorse.”

“I’d rather have an Arab, like Star and Larki.”

“Good luck finding an A-rab for sale in Wyoming.”

“Why is that?”

“Because they’re as tough to sell as surfboards here. That’s why.”

“I don’t get what you’re telling me, dude.”

“A lot of Arabs are too small to rope a cow from, let alone a bull. And even if they weren’t, they look funny. In addition to being A-rabs, of course.”

“People in Wyoming are so f—–g dumb.”

I removed the cylinder pin from the .41 magnum revolver I was cleaning and ran a copper brush dipped in solvent through the barrel.

“Here’s an Arabian for sale.” She turned the paper halfway round so I could read the ad. “It says she’s a six-year-old mare, experienced as a cutting-horse. What’s a cutting horse?”

“Means she’s trained to cut a single cow out of a herd. What are they asking for her?”

“Thirteen hundred dollars.”

“That sound like a good price to me. Better than you’d ever find in California, probably. Even with gas prices at two dollars a gallon, you’d come out ahead towing her all the way to Sonoma or wherever it is you’re going.”

“This horse’s name is Sassy,” Rhonda said.

“Sounds like a matchup to me. Let’s have the number and I’ll call over to Torrington right now.”

We started for Torrington, a hundred twenty miles to the northeast across the Laramie Mountains, at ten o’clock Saturday morning. I wanted to bring Babe the Australian sheepdog along in the back of the truck but Rhonda was afraid he might bite someone or run the horses, so we left him at home instead. She sat on the end of the bench seat by the window, Micaela seven years old between us with her journal and a blue crayon to write with. It was a splendid morning in mid April, the sky a shiny blue overhead, the greening plain spreading west to the blue mountains outlined by shining snowfields. Not least lovely were Micaela in her blue jeans, bandana handkerchief, and red cowboy boots from Corral West, Rhonda with her blonde hair streaked in mahoganny undertones, tawny skin, and intent brown eyes.

“You ladies look especially lovely today, my dears.”

“Thank you!”

It’s hard to make a compliment sound convincing to a woman who already knows she deserves it.

Rhonda dozed down through Sybill Canyon, her right temple against the sunwarmed window glass, while Micaela rehearsed her Andrea Marcovicci repertoire (“little white garden/little white gate/ where a girl loves to wait/watching and yearning for someone’s returning”), including every imagined facial expression, in a well-meant attempt at distracting my attention from the monotony of the two-lane road precariously tracing the cutbank above the sharply winding creek. We stopped at the Game and Fish wildlife center to observe a yearling moose, a flock of wild turkeys, and schools of brown trout flicking upstream away from our towering shadows and the massive tramp of our footfalls on the undercut bank.

“I’ve never seen a moose in the wild before,” Rhonda marveled.

“Hideous to behold, aren’t they? Like a horse designed by the U.S. Post Office.”

The highway, after descending among lava domes and turrets, broke finally into golden lowlands dominated by rugged hills and the pouring wind breaking through from the Laramie Plains, three thousand feet above beyond the western slope of the mountains. The canyon widened, and cattle dotted the broad yellow bottoms on either side of the meandering river lined by webby gray cottonwood trees.

“If this horse is ugly I’m going to be really bummed,” Rhonda remarked, waking again. “Micaela, don’t interrupt us when we’re talking!”

“I’m expecting to find she’s a very good horse,” I said.

“You’re such a freak, Micaela. What are you writing? ‘Mom is cool.’ Oh, how sweet. I really want her to be nice, you know?”

Near Wheatland we got on Interstate 25 and continued south a few miles to Chugwater, then east again to Hawk Springs. This was extreme southeastern Wyoming, pushing against the Nebraska border: wheatfields broken in places by eroding clay bluffs and mesas and dominated by the dark triangular form of Laramie Peak standing in the west, eastward an oceanic horizon shading away against the pale blue of the afternoon sky. The time was twelve fifteen. We were a quarter-of-an-hour late already, and thirty-six miles out still from Lingle.

“You brought your cell phone along, didn’t you? Thank God for Californians with their gadgets. Call Dawn and tell her we’ll be at her place in under forty minutes.”

Rhonda took the phone from the door pocket, dialed the number, and handed the thing across Micaela, now in the middle of an Eddie Murphy routine, to me.

You tell her, dude. You’re the one that’s talked with her before.”

At Lingle, a town of a few hundred or so people eighteen miles from the Nebraska line on Highway 26 coming up from Scottsbluff, I spent my first night in Wyoming twenty-three years ago, traveling with my pardner Ted Kovaleff of New York City. Together we burned a couple of thick steaks on a portable grill set up behind the motel and ate them with beefsteak tomatoes and Beefeater gin, while the May-green bluffs along the North Platte River turned gold, then purple, with evening and meadowlarks warbled from the leafing cottonwoods around the town square. At the time, I was thrilled to set foot in the Cowboy State. Nearly a quarter of a century later, I barely recognized the place as Wyoming, my home of twenty-one years: You might as well be in Alliance, Nebraska, as here.

At the rock shop midway between Torrington and Lingle we turned left across the Union Pacific tracks and followed the narrow road over the North Platte to the south bank of the river. The Hathaway place was a small frame single-storey farmhouse, not quite of the pioneer era, behind a windbreak of tall cottonwood trees looking as if they might be beginning to rot out the way old cottonwoods do and surrounded by hundreds of acres of harrowed dusty fields not yet planted to crops. I recognized the red 20-year-old Chevy dually parked on the turnaround Dawn had said to look for and turned in there. A tow-headed seven- or eight-year-old watching us from the other side of the Chevy truck introduced himself as Maverick, adding that his mother was in the house. “Micaela–get your boots on!” Rhonda ordered.

Farm wives and ranching ones aren’t always housekeepers, especially those with enough else to do. Dawn Hathaway, greeting us from a crosslegged position on the floor with a bottle-feeding baby in her lap and a couple of toddlers hanging around, obviously had more than enough. Glancing sideways at Rhonda, I saw her tuck a loose strand of hair behind one ear. “Rob will be back in a moment to take the baby, and then I can show you the horse,” Dawn said.

Rob Hathaway was a tall young man wearing a farmer’s cap, jeans and workboots, and a T-shirt with fishing flies on the chest. A native of Oklahoma, he had a job at a slaughterhouse in town to supplement the income he made from tenant farming. Dawn took a bridle from a peg behind the door and led the way to the corral, which had three horses standing in it. One was a tall, very large-boned buckskin quarterhorse, about seventeen hands and weighing maybe thirteen hundred pounds. Of other two, the larger was a handsome gray half-Arab gelding, well-built at fifteen hands, the smaller a bay mare with small bones and a lean barrel, not more than thirteen hands in height and looking more like a yearling colt than a six-year-old cowpony. I like smaller horses myself, but have friends larger than me to mount in elk season and for pack expeditions.

The mare came willingly enough. Dawn fitted the bit, slipped the headstall over the ears, and saddled her with a lightweight, comfortable-looking rig. The horse was moving out already as she stepped up, which can lose you points or even disqualify you in competition, but saves time under working conditions. Her springy ankles gave her an easy trot, her canter looked smooth as a rocking horse, and I had to admire her quickness in crossing over, in the turn and backup, and changing leads. When Dawn had finished putting the mare through her paces she slipped down from the saddle and gave the reins to me. Slightly barn-sour from winter, and unused as well to an unfamiliar rider, she stepped on my foot before I could get up, but performed well otherwise, except for a bit of crowhopping when I tried to back her.

“Your turn,” I told Rhonda when I was on the ground again.

“No. I don’t don’t think so. She didn’t seem to want you on her.”

“Go on, now. It’s you who wants to buy a horse.”

No competitive athlete backs down from a challenge. I saw the look come into her eyes before Rhonda snatched the reins from my hands, turned the stirrup as I’d instructed her to do months before, gripped the cantle with her left hand, and sprang up to the saddle. While Dawn and I watched, she worked Sassy through in the corral until horse and rider appeared to feel comfortable with one another.

“Where’s Micaela?” I asked Rhonda when she surrendered the mare at last.

“Over there by the haystack playing with Dawn’s kids.”

“She’s not interested in the horse?”

“You see she’s not interested.”

There’s a New England saying about women having three stages: Horses, men, and religion. In todays’ overheated society, it’s refreshing to know a seven-year-old who hasn’t come to the first one yet.

Dawn unsaddled Sassy and turned her loose in the corral while Rhonda called Micaela to her, promising to phone when she’d made a decision about the horse. “It’s nice to find someone who’s at least interested in Arabs,” Dawn remarked, wistfully.

The light was sharply angled in the springtime valley of the North Platte as we started west again, through Lingle, Fort Laramie, Guernsey, and Dwyer.

“I took my cue from you the whole time,” Rhonda said. “I could see from your face how disappointed you were when you first saw that horse.”

“She’s pretty small. But also strong and beautifully quick and welltrained. If you don’t want her, maybe I’ll buy her myself.”

“Do you think she’d make a good horse for me?”

“Yes, I think so. She’s a real athlete, that horse. Just like you.”

“I feel so sad,” Rhonda said. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

Past Guernsey the road climbed out of the riverbottom onto a wide tableland from where the Laramie Range, backlit by the setting sun, appeared like shark’s teeth along the western horizon.

“I’m going to miss Wyoming,” she went on. “I wish I could have seen more of it before I left.”

“I never thought I’d hear you say it. You’ve been bellyaching about Wyoming for the past ten months, as long as I’ve known you.”

“I wish I could turn my horse in with your two. We could ride whenever we wanted and go up in the mountains together.”

“That would be wonderful. But you’re going home to California in two months. You won’t give Wyoming another thought once you’re back there.”

“If I find a horse I like in California, will you come out and look it over for me first?”

“Maybe I might. We’ll have to see.”

“Oh,” Rhonda exclaimed, “life is just so f—–g complicated.”

“You’ve decided against buying the horse after all?”

“I told you,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about the horse.”