He knew twelve hundred dollars was a bargain for a strong-legged filly with papers. He knew that even before he saw her.
His name was William Testerman, and he was twenty-three years old. There were days he felt older. And days he felt as lost as a blind pup. His parents had raised him in a way that allowed him to take account of the weaknesses he might find within himself. His older brothers, Everett and Chad, had managed to cover the bases on the family ranch. It was a small place, just ninety deeded acres set along one side of Little Kettle Creek. The town of Lost Cabin, Wyoming, had grown right up to the edge of the ranch, and the town was growing still. It was his father's joke to refer to the hay meadows and corrals he owned as the Lost Cabin Municipal Golf Course.
Town is eating its way right past us, his father said. When I was a kid, you couldn't pay people to live in this part of the state. Too cold. Too much isolation. Now everybody in America thinks they're in love with fresh air and loneliness.
Will knew the Testerman Ranch was not going to become a golf course, but it would remain forever small, even if the grazing permits in the Rampart Range west of town were renewed at a reasonable price. There was some work for him on the place. His father had an ongoing contract with the feedlot in Powell. But he could not see himself in those fields or along those well- strung fence lines, not in the years ahead.
His mother was a schoolteacher in town. He believed he owed some of his restlessness to her. She had taken on full- time work when he was old enough to go to school, and the two of them had driven to and from Lost Cabin for many years. It was a short drive, but in those minutes together—often in the blue cold of a winter morning—they would talk about their days, about who they were. His mother had traveled some when she was young. She was also a great reader of books.
She would say to him, Who are you today, Will Testerman?
And he would say, if he wished to disappoint her, Today I hate arithmetic.
More often he would say a thing to entertain her or to warm up the teacher in her. He would say, Today I am a minuteman from Massachusetts, or, Today I am the man from over there in France who discovered germs. It wasn't hard to please his mother or to make her laugh. This was true even after a difficult day, one that left a grayish color around her lips. She only wanted to talk to him. She only wanted him to know how big the world was.
He had lived away from home for a while. He had wrangled horses on the Black Bell Ranch nearly every summer since he turned sixteen. They liked him at the Black Bell, which was an old-style guest ranch in the Absaroka Mountains east of Yellowstone. They said he could have a job there whenever he wanted. After high school, he spent a few months driving vans for a California firm that shipped horses up and down the West Coast. The job had been a serious change of pace, but he had quickly found its limits. He spent two semesters taking classes at the community college in Casper. It was a chore that pleased his mother more than it pleased him. The best was a stint in Texas. That lasted almost a year. He had worked for a big-money outfit in Texas, and there had been a great deal to learn—about people and about what he himself had best stay away from.
His brothers liked to pretend he hadn't done anything of value in Texas. They told friends Will had tied colored ribbons into the manes of horses that sold for the price of a Denver Broncos tight end. They said he babysat rich girls. The friends wanted to hear more about the girls, so he shared the kind of stories that made him out to be the fool. He knew his place around his brothers. They were welcome to laugh at him. He had gone to Texas, which neither Chad nor Everett had done, and he had watched men and women down there do their jobs the way they liked to do them, and he had learned. He was not stubborn in the way of his brothers. He did not mind starting at the bottom of a thing and climbing up.
He acquired the filly sooner than he planned. He thought he knew why that had happened. He had the money, first of all. He had been careful that winter. He took every small job that was offered except those that might have kept him away from home at night. This meant he did not go into the Garnet Field, where the natural gas outfits were drilling wells faster than a rabbit had babies. Chad, who had gone to college to be a geologist, was in the Garnet Field. Chad made good money. He lived with a girl in a nice apartment in town. Everett was still very much at home, and he managed the comings and goings of the family cattle when he was done with his shifts driving truck for Cabin Valley Beverage. Will had not wanted to keep those kinds of hours. Their mother had been sick. There had been six weeks of chemotherapy in Riverton, and six more weeks of radiation after that. The doctors hoped the cancer was gone. They had caught it early. Will had made it his business to stay close to his mother, to drive her where she needed to be driven, and to sit in the house while she lay down in her bedroom. He tended to her. It wasn't a problem. But seeing his mother on her feet again, hearing her joke about her hair and how it was growing back in funny gray curls, opened the gate for him.
There was also the business with his neighbor, Annie Atwood. Annie had disappeared the previous summer while she was running near Flat Top Mountain. There was no good explanation for what had happened to her. Will had been questioned by the police more than once because he was Annie's friend. He had plowed her driveway during the winter with the ranch's plow, and he had known her all his life. Annie's disappearance had torn up a lot of people in town. It had raised hard questions, and people had said things in their distress that were difficult to take back. He didn't think it was wrong for him to plan on leaving Lost Cabin for a while, at least until the air around town tasted less sour in his mouth.
He told Campion he would drive up to the ranch on the South Fork of the Shoshone on Monday.
You bringing a trailer?
You think I should?
I guess I do. Or I wouldn't have mentioned it.
She got the build?
I guess I think so. Or I wouldn't have called. I know every man has his own way of seeing a horse, but I'd bet money I know how you'll see this one.
He went to the bank that afternoon. When he took the cashier's check from the teller, his hands felt steady and warm.
THE DRIVE to Cody took three hours. He didn't play the radio. The empty trailer rattled in the wind behind him. It made better music than the radio. And he liked to think when he drove. He worked over the edges of his plan in his mind. It was a good plan. Simple. It didn't involve anyone else or their money. He could get out quick if he needed to. Getting out quick was something he had learned to value in Texas.
He stopped to check his tires in Meeteetse. The truck he was driving, a five- year- old Dodge, had briefly belonged to his brother Everett. Everett had not been satisfied with it, so Will took on the payments. The Dodge was a good match with his Bruton trailer. He had put new tires on the truck at Christmas, but he found that it paid to check the pressure in those tires after an hour on the road. The Greybull River crossed under the highway at Meeteetse. He pulled over just past the bridge. When he stepped out into the unsettled morning with the pressure gauge cold in his hand, the air pushing down through the valley of the Greybull ran icy along the edges of his jaw. It was late spring in Wyoming. The river was as crumpled and brown as a paper bag. It would probably be another six weeks before the water ran clear. He wondered what it would be like to own good muddy ranch land along the Greybull River, whether that kind of thing would ever again be possible for a man his age.
He watched the big shoulder of Carter Mountain as he headed north toward Cody. The morning light was breaking itself into plates and shards against the mountain's rim. The light was golden, and brittle. It colored the snow bound meadows above tree line the color of old bone. He had always loved watching the high mountains of the north, the way they changed with every shift of the sun, the way they never looked like the same country twice.
When he got to the Saber Ranch, Campion was waiting. Mr. Hassan, the owner, came out from New York only during the summer and hunting season. Campion managed the place on his own. Mr. Hassan had gotten rid of all his cows, Campion said. It was down to just horses now.
I got fifteen head, Campion said, if you don't count my own two. Need to go down to less than ten. Mr. Hassan has decided he wants to bring in some mules. And the wife has got in mind new horses for the kids.
Mr. Hassan plan to take pack trips with his mules?
Don't know. Mules don't do much good for me unless I use them regular. And I don't care to ride them. I know a outfitter that might lease them if I ask. Mules can be solid on a hunt as long as you don't get in close with a bear.
Will took in a deep breath of the place. It was a prime location. You could smell the smoky granite of the Shoshone River's bed from the main house, and you could smell the sweet moisture of the spruce trees. He had seen a pair of ravens perched on the buck rail fence when he turned off the county road. He always thought of ravens as a good sign.
You probably don't want any coffee, do you? Campion asked.
Will shook his head. It was still cold at the Saber. The sun wouldn't be on the main house or the barns until noon. He kept his jacket zipped. He made sure he had his gloves.
Let's get to it, then, Campion said. You're a man who likes his business.
There were several horses in the corrals, most of them in blankets. Campion pointed out a high- earning champion mare. She had a new foal by her side. And he pointed out his own paint gelding, which was being doctored for a split hoof. He told Will he had kept the filly inside so she would stay clean.
How's she run with the other horses? Will asked. He wanted to make sure he went through all the right questions.
Good, Campion said. She's been with her mother, who didn't get in foal last year. Sally don't spoil her babies. She noses them out when she needs to. This one weaned well enough, and she keeps her place.
Not like you mean. I couldn't say if she's got the mind for toughing it out in competition. I couldn't make any promises there. But she don't give in to the others without making some noise.
The barn was a two-winged affair, part of it as old as the Saber Ranch itself, part of it as new and imposing as Mr. Hassan's Wall Street money. Campion took him in through a small door that led into a concrete-floored washing stall. There was a cat sitting in the corner of the stall, a tabby licking its scabs. Campion ignored it.
You take a elk this year? Campion asked. The newspaper said the herd down your way was big and healthy.
Will saw tenseness in the way Campion stood on the concrete, and he realized Campion was delaying the moment. Campion lived alone on the Saber Ranch. He was a tall man, and thin, and if he ever had a family, he seemed to have lost it. It occurred to Will that Campion, as lonely as he was, might regard the showing of a horse as a kind of strip tease, a ritual to be savored. He thought maybe Campion was afraid that he, Will, would rush things.
I got a spike bull in the Ramparts in December, he told Campion. It wasn't a great shot, but it was good enough. I hauled the quarters out in two trips. We don't have the trouble you have up here with drought. Or with wolves.
The drought is as bad as the wolves, Campion said. It was hard to get into the back country this year. The snow come at the wrong time.
Will pushed his tongue in among his teeth while he glanced at Campion. I got lucky, if you want to know the truth, he continued. Missed a bull with a big rack the year before.
Campion hooked his fingers deep into his vest pockets. He looked like he was working his way through Will's story in his head, cataloging it. The story seemed to satisfy him.
She's down at the end, Campion said. Why don't you wait here, and I'll get her. We'll take her to the arena.
He didn't want to wait, but he did. He watched the tabby cat while Campion strode away from him. The cat watched him back with its slant green eyes.
He heard the sounds of a horse stirring in sawdust and straw. He heard Campion working at the latch of a stall door. The barn, which was cold and dully lit, seemed to be empty except for the one horse he had come to see. There were no birds up in the rafters. No sleeping dogs. Even the green- eyed tabby acted like she was part of something temporary. He reminded himself of his promise. This was a business proposition. If he was to buy this horse, it would be a decision based on business.
Campion led her up the aisle with his hand tight on the lead rope, right up at her throat. This caused the filly to carry her head too high and to stretch out her nose in a way that made her look like she had a weak front end. He couldn't see the lines of her legs. The light was too dim. And he couldn't see her shoulders or flanks because she wore a blanket, a heavy plaid sheet that was checked with gray and blue. But he could see her head, wide at the brow and nicely tapered above the nostrils. She had a tiny patch of white on her forehead. It looked like the triangle of a man's pocket handkerchief. Her eyes, he saw, were rotated back toward Campion and his heavy hand. She was shouldering in on Campion, too. She wasn't at all relaxed.
I'm gonna take this little girl to the arena, Campion said.
Can you stop her right there? he asked. I don't need to see her in the arena. I can get to know her here.
His request frustrated Campion. He could see that in the way Campion dug his square chin back toward his collarbone. Campion probably had it all set up—how he wanted to stand the filly in the better light of the arena, how he wanted to trot her out in the good footing there. Campion was not ready to have another man take charge.
But he was the buyer, the one with money. They both knew it was usual to let the one with money take charge.
He did not make a move toward her. He stood silently in the center of the aisle until Campion loosened his fingers on the lead rope and the filly began to lower her head. She kept her eyes on Campion, who was off to her side. He was the one who made her feel vulnerable. But she had brought her lovely ears forward at the first sound of Will's voice, and she kept them there. She had, he noted, perfect quarter horse ears. They were set evenly on either side of her smoothly rounded poll, and they were shaped like tears, like a pair of shadow- filled tears drawn by a child's hand. They were not too large. He was thankful for that. Large ears belonged on geldings, in his opinion.
He watched the way she distributed her weight on her feet. He watched her draw in air with her nostrils as she searched for his scent. Her left ear rotated back toward Campion as he took a step away from her. Her large eyes, which were edged in the same unmarred black skin as her muzzle, also remained on the manager.
She's halter broke pretty good, Campion said. Did I tell you that?
Excerpted from BOLETO by ALYSON HAGY Copyright © 2012 by Alyson Hagy. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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