That old man was always mad at me. Or so I thought. In retrospect maybe I just misunderstood him.
Dan Dodge stood in the doorway of the old 20 stall horse barn that occupied the middle of however many acres that ol’ Ms. Depslough dedicated to the production of decent stock horses and the occasional race horse candidate within her small farming operation. Cattle was her main effort. She had managed to get a decent foundation of stock and through the years found her efforts towards the cattle to be to her best advantage. Horses really were not her major concern. Just more to feed. The stable brought money, though. If ol' Lady Depslough ever had a talented colt that looked like it might make it to the track she never worked it. She sold it off for the dreams of anyone but herself. She had been through it before, and it was, for her, nothing but a trail of broken hearts, disappointment and loss. She didn’t mind renting out stalls, though. Dan was in charge of the stable and all of the horses in it no matter who owned them or what their job was. Dan preferred not to put too much thought into it, and treated each animal the same except for the race horses that ol’ Lady Depslough DID stable. He knew how to train them well, but he made Arturo do most of THAT work.
The corrugated tin walls of the structure where the seasoned horseman stood smoking a home rolled cigarette and drinking black coffee with a shot of Kentucky straight bourbon in it at 6 a.m. were beginning to show some age. Dan absently looked at the brown patches of rust that invaded the blue gray of aged galvanized metal constructing the walls of the slowly decaying building where he was now reposed. Dan lived in the loft above the tack room. Dan vaguely realized that he had built that barn himself, and wondered if he, too, was showing signs of weather. He ran his hand over his now bald head and then to his chin. He felt his slightly whiskered jaw and took another drink of his coffee. He could see the reflection of his bloodshot eyes on the shining surface of the black liquid. At least he couldn’t smell his breath.
It was early yet. The sun just up – but behind him tractors groaned and roared, one tractor shallowly tilling up the soft gray dirt of a ½ mile race track where some of the animals in his charge would soon start their day of training, and another tractor behind the first one dragging the track level again after the first tractor tilled.
I was just lying there under a shade tree minding my own business. Kind of wishing the old lady would throw out my breakfast from the back door before I had to go duck and dodge the protests of the heels that I was about to have to dog all day. I saw Dan, but I pretended to sleep. I watched him through one mostly closed eye and I did not wag my tail.
Dan’s eyes turned to my pile of treasures. The stuff that I found when I was out checking on things after darkness came. I never could understand what that man was complaining about. It was MY stuff. Sort of.
“Damn you, Bruno.” When I was a pup, I thought my NAME was Damnyoubruno. I finally figured out that the man was mad at me. All of the time. Dan bent over and sifted through the objects. “If you’re going to go through the danged trouble of dragging all of this stupid stuff back here, it seems like you could at LEAST bring back a fucking PAIR of something.”
Dan took inventory of my efforts. There WERE 2 boots. Didn’t look the same, though. A nice bandana that Dan sure didn’t mind snatching from the pile and stuffing into his pocket. A ring of keys that someone was probably missing. Good thing I brought them. A pair of reading glasses, a curry comb, a small bible and an empty wallet. Every night after everyone was asleep I always brought back the items that they lost. Every morning before work, the farm hands looked through the pile and took back what was theirs. I just kept everything together for them in that pile. What was not taken back was mine, and I buried that out behind the barn.
I heard a shrill voice call “Brrruuuunooooooo!” followed by a whistle. Breakfast time! I stood up and shook off the dust as I looked at Dan. Then I trotted over and lifted a leg marking the tree by where he stood. He did not know how much he needed me.
“Damn you Bruno” Dan muttered as he wandered off into the barn to get the horses up. I never could figure out just what I had done wrong. So pretty soon I just ignored him for the most part.
It was breakfast time and I was hungry and it was almost time for work.
By the time I ate what the old lady threw to me the sun was higher in the sky and it looked like it was going to be a hot day. I did not see any clouds and it smelled very dry. I could hear the cows down in the pasture getting impatient for the food that Dan would soon be hauling down to them.
I could remember when this whole operation was much harder work. I recalled the days when changing pastures meant a round up. We would work for days moving cattle from pasture to pasture. Now those stupid cows just followed the trucks around looking for food so if they needed to be rotated off of a pasture you just opened the gate and let them follow the truck. There might be a few stragglers, but I always took care of that with a little nip to the heel for encouragement.
Seemed like the only time we did any hard work anymore was when the cows needed delousing and vaccinations. We didn’t even use a hot branding iron anymore. They marked those big stupid cows with something that froze their skin and caused their hair to turn white. I didn’t mind about all that, really. But things were surely different from when I was a pup. My muzzle was getting a little gray now. My bones ached sometimes. But I could still run faster than Dan’s old pick up truck and jump in the back while he was driving down the road. And I could still keep the stock in line. And I would not hesitate to tear the throat out of anyone who dared to threaten the people or the stock in my charge.
I trotted back out to the horse barn and watched Dan as he got the horses ready for their day.
As Dan went to the tack room to retrieve a caddy containing brushes, combs, liniment and insect spray to groom his horses with, Arturo, his helper walked up from his quarters, ambling towards the barn and stretching and running his fingers through his long coal black hair.
“Hey, Bruno!” Arturo greeted me and petted my black and white head and produced a piece of sausage from his pocket. I wagged my tail as he extended his offering towards me. He always brought me something. His wife was a great cook. I was always happy to see him. Arturo looked through the small pile of things that I had found the night before and picked out his reading glasses. He smiled and patted me and said I was a good boy.
“That damn dog stinks, Arturo. Why don’t you take him out to the water trough and see if you can’t rinse some of that stench off of him.” Dan wrinkled his nose, spat on the ground and looked sternly at Arturo over the tall, wide back of the yellow dun gelding he was brushing. The horse was dappled with good health. Solid muscle. Dan applied hoof dressing to the animal’s feet before leading the horse out of the barn to hook his halter to one of the positions on a hot walker.
“Go wash the fucking DOG, young ‘un.”
Arturo muttered “fuck you” under his breath as he called me to follow him out to the water trough. “C’mon Bruno.”
I grunted, but I did as I was told. Arturo walked ahead and glanced back to see if I was coming. I was. But slowly.
Once at the trough Arturo asked me if I wanted to do it the hard way or the easy way. I’m not one for baths, but today was going to be hot- so I just climbed in. Arturo kept a bottle of soap at the trough for these occasions. The water trough was deeper than I was tall, so I had to stand on my hind legs and put my paws up on the edge of the metal tank to keep my nose out of the water. Of course, as soon as I immersed myself in the tank- every critter that shared living space under my fur ran fleeing the water towards my head. So- I had to go completely under the water to float the bugs off of me. Arturo waited patiently. I dove under the water for a few seconds, then emerged shaking my head to clear my ears and eyes. Arturo said only foxes did that. Too bad I couldn’t tell him that’s where I learned it. Sometimes the language barrier was maddening. But mostly it was probably for the better that I could not speak their language nor them mine. We all understood each other just fine, mostly.
I climbed out of the water trough and Arturo soaped me up. He started at my head. He washed me de la nariz a la cola. Si? From my nose to my tail.
“EEEeew, Bruno! See, Bruno! Comprende! You have to stay handsome! Guapo, ol‘ hombre! Las senoritas won’t love you if you don’t smell good. And the white side of your head was looking all dirty. That’s no bueno! No good, Bruno!” Arturo lathered the soap and washed me from nose to tail. Soon one of Arturo’s ninos noticed his daddy washing me.
“Papi! Can I help you wash Bruno?! Papi! Why does Bruno have a blue eye and a brown eye? Papi! Why does Bruno . . .”
“Mijo! Papi is working! You need to go inside and get ready for escuela! For school!”
“Washing Bruno is working, Papi?”
“Si, mijo. Part of Papi’s importante trabajo.”
They both laughed.
“Now you go to school so you don’t have to wash Bruno when you grow up. Si?” They laughed some more. I didn’t think it was particularly funny.
The little boy kissed his father and ran back to their quarters. Arturo rinsed the soap from me with the water hose. It was really cold. Not as cold as when the flowers were still out.
Arturo pleaded with me, “Don’t shake, Bruno! POR FAVOR?! You wait until I move, Si?”
Yeah, right, I thought. I had water in my ears and eyes and the soap was burning a little. I HAD to shake or suffer. So- I was shaking! Arturo could move.
“Aaaaw! Pero MALO!” Arturo groaned feigning anger as he ran from the spray of water that flew from my normally black, fluffy coat. I did not imagine that any of the local bitches would find me too attractive looking like a drowned rat. So much for “the ladies”.
“Arturo!” Dan called from the barn. “You take those last 4 horses and swim them. Each one for a half hour.” Arturo didn’t mind working the horses at all. He quickened his step as he walked back towards the stable. I shook a few more times. But I’d rather be damp than HOT. And with all of this hair and the sun that WE lived under- being a little damp was a blessing.
I don’t know why Dan thought I smelled bad, anyway. Dan didn’t know it, but when Arturo swam the horses- I led them. I took each lead rope in my teeth and swam pulling the horse through the exercise pool first one direction and then the other until Arturo said the time was up. It kept me pretty clean. Arturo just watched and hooked each horse to the walker after I swam it and then took them to the barn after they were dry and cooled. He brought me great food and it was, in my opinion, a great trade. Ol’ lady Depslough never had much in the way of left over food. The men that worked her farm were hungry people, and Arturo had a wife and tres ninas. Arturo’s wife made me special tamales. I loved them. And sausage.
Dan started walking towards the barn to load his truck up with hay and some grain for the cattle. I trotted along behind him. He was disagreeable but we can’t choose who we work with unless we own the farm, so I just learned how to stay out of harm’s way.