The man’s closest neighbor, Wallis Tremont, had once observed, “I think thet horse’d run ’til he dropped.” His voice had conveyed his admiration as he looked at the animal.
Donnigan smiled now at the thought and had to admit that Wallis likely was right. The black sure did love to run.
Man and horse crossed a small creek, wound their way up a hill, and topped the crest to look out over a sweeping valley. There beneath them grazed fifty-odd head of prime stock. The sparkle returned to Donnigan’s eyes, and a slow smile turned up the corners of his mouth and crinkled the tanned skin around his eyes.
“Spring calves sure do look good,” he told the horse.
The black pawed the ground.
“I know, I know,” he said with a chuckle. “You want to see the horses.”
But he did not give the horse permission to move on. Not just yet. He loved to look out at the herd as it grazed peacefully in the valley. He had long dreamed of just such a scene before him. His. Yet even now he could scarcely believe that the dream had actually come true.
Oh, not all of it. He still had a ways to go. Still had fences to build and buildings to raise. And there were the payments to make. His crops were still in the fields. His herds were not the size he hoped to make them. But the crops looked good. The herds would take care of their own growth. He had good stock. That was what counted. And time would take care of the line of annual payments that stretched out before him. He felt good. Blessed. Happy. He was right where he wanted to be—and still young enough to enjoy many years of being there.
Donnigan’s body shifted as the big black beneath him pawed the ground again and snorted his annoyance at being kept in check.
“All right. All right,” said the man, for the first time just a hint of impatience in his voice.
He lifted the reins and urged the horse forward. “So where do you think they’ll be feeding?”
The black did not wait for a second invitation. With a toss of his head he headed south, taking the rise in long, powerful strides, the foam on his broad chest flecking the man who sat in the saddle.
“Easy. Easy,” Donnigan chided gently, his hand slightly tightening the reins.
They topped the rise, and there they were—three geldings, seven mares, and six foals. At the sound of the approaching hooves all heads lifted and excited whinnies welcomed the black. One mare left the herd and trotted toward them, her head held high, her nostrils distended. Other mares joined her, trotting a few paces, stopping, snorting, tossing heads and swishing tails. The geldings shifted about, seeming uneasy at the appearance of the black stallion. Only the younger foals seemed unaffected. They fed or gambolled or chased after dams just as though the big black was not quickly covering the distance between them.
Donnigan rode right up to the shifting herd. They swirled and bolted around him, and though his demeanor seemed just as relaxed, his eyes were ever alert for the playful kick that could mean a bad bruise or even a broken leg should it strike a rider.
“Look at that young colt,” he said to his black. “You ought to be plenty proud of him. He looks just like you.”
The colt was playfully nipping another foal and dancing and kicking in mock battle.
The black paid no more attention to the colt than to the rest of the milling herd.
Donnigan studied each of his horses carefully. For the most part he was more than pleased with what he saw, but his eyes did narrow when he saw Sergeant, one of his work geldings, appear to move forward with a very slight limp. He seemed to be favoring his right front leg. Donnigan watched the horse take a few more steps, his eyes squinted against the harsh afternoon sun, and then he lifted his rope from the saddle horn and moved the black into closer proximity.
With one quick flick of his wrist the rope snaked out and encircled the neck of the surprised roan. He did not fight the noose about his neck, but his head lifted and he snorted his complaint.
Donnigan moved the black to a hold position and swung down from the saddle.
“Whoa, boy. Whoa, Sarg,” he soothed as he moved along the rope to the gelding.
Gently his hands began to rub the nose, caress the neck, and then slide down toward the right front foot. The horse responded by lifting the foot when the hand reached the hoof. Donnigan was relieved at what he found. No serious problem, simply a small stone lodged against the frog.
Holding the hoof with one hand against his bent knee, he reached into his pants pocket and withdrew his knife. After opening the blade with his teeth, he began to gently nudge the stone from its wedged position, all the while talking soothingly to the horse.
When the stone was gone, Donnigan ran a practiced finger over the entire area. There seemed to be no damage—no swelling. The horse should be fine.
Patting the gelding again, he released the leg and slipped the noose from the roan’s neck. The horse did not step back but reached instead to rub his nose against the tall man’s shoulder.
“Go on with you. Get outta here,” said Donnigan affectionately with another slap on the animal’s neck. “You won’t be needed in the hay field for a few days yet.”
The roan flung his head and moved slowly away, and Donnigan made his way back to the black, coiling his rope as he moved.
He replaced the rope on the saddle horn and reached for the reins. His eyes passed over the herd that had gradually stopped its shifting and returned to grazing.
“See that, Black. They’re ignoring you already,” Donnigan chuckled and rubbed the horse’s nose. Then his eyes lifted to the sky. It was a clear, sunny day. A perfect day for—something. But Donnigan wasn’t sure just what he would do with it.
It would be another week before the hay was ready. The crops were well on the way but far from harvest. The fences were mended, the barn cleaned and strawed. With plenty of water and feed, the cattle needed no care in the summer months. The horses had just been checked. The roan was now moving about with little trace of his former limp.
“Guess we aren’t needed here,” he said to the stallion. “Might as well head on home.”
He gathered up the reins and stepped up into the saddle again. The black shifted and snorted. Donnigan knew that the horse would prefer staying with the herd. But it was almost two miles back to the house, and Donnigan had never enjoyed walking for no good reason. And he certainly had no intention of walking that afternoon in the hot sun with a saddle on his shoulder.
“Come on,” he urged the black as he laid the rein against his neck to swing him around. “You’ll be with the herd soon enough.”
Then he added softly as though to himself, “At least you got a herd to go to. Me? I have to content myself with having conversations with critters.”
And suddenly the joy seemed gone from the day. It was wonderful to have a dream fulfilled—but he sure was lonely.
By the time Donnigan had reached the farm buildings, the cloud of discontent had settled firmly about him. Not one to be given to brooding, he tried hard to shake the feeling. Surely, he reasoned, when he reached home and looked at the snug frame cabin that was his, the sturdy log buildings that were his barn and outbuildings, the strong, upright fences and corrals that he had spent days laboring over, the mood would leave him.
But even as he reined Black in before the corral gate and prepared to dismount, he realized he still felt discomfited.
He wanted to shake himself. To rid himself of his morose thoughts. To chide himself for feeling “down” when he had just surveyed so much that should make him feel “up.”
“What’s gone wrong?” he said aloud and realized that he was not talking to the black but to himself.
He had no answer. He just felt—yes, lonely. But surely a man who lived alone had a right to his lonely times. It seemed natural enough.
But as Donnigan moved to give the stallion his rubdown and return him to the corral, to the trough filled with clear spring water and to the manger filled with sweet hay, his thoughts were not easy to shake.
He was even more troubled when the black moved away from the water and hay and straight to the corral fence that was the closest he could get to the distant herd. He pushed his large body against the rails and lifted his head in a long, plaintive whinny.
The lonely call of the stallion seemed to shake Donnigan to his very soul. For a moment he regretted that he hadn’t left the horse in the pasture with the herd and walked home through the heat. It seemed cruel to separate him from his kind.
In the next moment Donnigan lifted the saddle from the rail where he had placed it, then whistled to the horse. The black swung around, tossing his head and trotting obediently toward Donnigan.
“Don’t get too excited,” Donnigan warned him gently. “We’re not going back to the herd. But I gotta talk with someone before I go stir crazy. We’re gonna go see Wallis.”
As expected, the stallion had wanted to take the trail back toward the pasture, but with a gentle nudge on the rein, Donnigan urged him toward the rough tract that was the country road. Black didn’t argue, being too well trained to fight the command. Soon they were loping easily in the direction of the neighbor bachelor’s place.
Donnigan wondered if they would find Wallis at home, but as they swung down the lane, Donnigan saw the man come to his door and peer out into the bright sun. Then the door swung fully open and Wallis squinted out at them.