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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Horse Whisperer

A few days after the airplane ride, I was sitting in Gearhart’s with David Schaeffer and Ariel.  We were just talking and killing tie.  I mentioned that so far I had not been able to find a good summer job.  David came up with a suggestion.
“You know all about horses, don’t you, Conrad?”
“Sure—but what good does that do me when I am trying to find a job in Vancouver?”
“Tell you what,” he said, “over on Hayden Island back beyond the Jantzen Beach amusement park and the midget car race track, there is a big riding academy.  They have a bunch of horses and I’ll bet an old country boy like you could get a job tending those horses—if you don’t mind the smell of horse manure.”
I perked up my ears.  Some people object to the smell of a barnyard but I did not mind at all—it was like home on the farm.  The more I thought about David’s idea, the better it seemed.  I sure was not finding anything better to do.
The very next morning I set off on foot.  I hoofed the long mile across the Interstate bridge to Hayden Island.  West, beyond the amusement park roller coaster and the dirt race track, there was a yellow building with an arched roof.  Big black letters on the arch read “Columbia Riding Academy”.  Strung from a corner of the building there was a row of stalls.
The office was at the south end of the building.  I went in and knocked on the office door but no one came.  Finally, I turned back through the large building which turned out to be mostly a big, sawdust-floored arena—to the stable side.
I found a large, wood-floored area where the horses were saddled and mounted.  There was a tack room adjacent with racks of English saddles and a few Western saddles plus a rack of bridles.  I called out but only horse snorts answered me.  I realized that it was almost noon and probably everyone was gone to lunch.
I walked along the row of box stalls, each occupied by a sleek horse, then back through the loading platform to where there were two more box stalls then a row of standing stalls down the side of the building along an alleyway.  A feeling of nostalgia swept over me as I inhaled the familiar smells of a barn.
Walking back after inspecting the long row of horses’ rumps, I halted at one of the box stalls near the tack room.  In it was a very pretty dainty small black mare with a sore leg.  She backed away from the stall door as I came up.  Her lower left foreleg was trailing the dirty end of the bandage that had been carelessly applied.  I could see the edge of an ugly gash above the loose bandage.
The mare had moved against the back wall of the stall.  I leaned through the open top half of the stall door and spoke gently to her, holding out my hand.  She snorted fearfully at first then came forward to sniff at my fingers.  I kept talking soothingly to her and she finally brought her head close enough for me to stroke her nose and scratch between her ears.
Behind me, on a timber along the alleyway, there was a can of salve.  I reached back for it then, still stroking the mare’s nose and speaking to her reassuringly, eased open the door and stepped into the stall.  The horse flinched and drew back but relaxed as I stroked her un-curried neck.  She even nuzzled me a bit so I knew she was friendly.
I gradually worked my hand along her neck, then down her foreleg until I reached the bandage.  The mare stood quietly so I unwound the bandage and exposed a gash that looked as if she had tangled with a barbed wire fence.  I gently rubbed some of the salve onto the cut, tore off the end of the bandage that had been trailing in the dirty straw, and rewound it on her leg properly.  I was just re-tieing the bandage when there were footsteps across the loading area and into the alleyway.
“What the hell!”  It was a rough masculine voice.
I did not look up right away as I was still busy with the bandage.  The voice then said, more quietly, “Don’t make any sudden moves, kid.”  The stall door creaked.  “Just back away easy so you don’t scare that mare.  She’s mean and will kick your head off!  Come out of there!”
I straightened up and turned, stroking the mare’s neck with my free hand.  “Don’t seem mean to me, mister.  She is a nice little mare.”
The man facing me was a short individual dressed in tan whipcord riding pants, brown riding boots, and a western-style beige shirt trimmed in dark brown.  He had on a string tie.  His thinning hair was mustardy blond and he had a cigar stub clenched in the corner of his aquiline and angry face beneath a thin blond mustache.  “Some dude!” I thought to myself.
Replacing the lid on the can of salve I stepped out of the stall and closed the door.  “I’m sorry, mister, didn’t mean no harm.”
Sensing that it might help, I did something that I have continued to do through the years on appropriate occasions—I lapsed into Ozark idiom that would mark me for a country boy.  “I was looking for whoever runs this here place and I seen that there mare’s leg needed some attention.  The bandage was loose and trailing in the dirt.  I jist put a little of that there salve on her cut and fixed the bandage—didn’t mean no harm.”
The angry flush left the man’s face and he removed the cigar stub from his mouth.  “How in the world did you do that?  Every time George tries to treat her leg that mare fights back.  Can’t no one hardly get near her!”
The mare had her head out of the open upper half of the door.  I stroked her nose again and said, “Well, maybe somebody was been mean to her.  You get mean with a horse, it’s gonna get mean with you every time...”
He laughed and held out his hand—which was clammy when I shook it.  “My name’s Art Farr—an owner of this place.  I don’t suppose you would be looking for a job?”
My heart leaped at his words.  “Matter of fact, Mister Farr, that is why I came looking for someone.  I could use a job for the summer.”
“Well,” he said as he turned, “you got one if you want to be a barn boy.  Anybody can talk to horses like that I can use!”  He stepped outside the stable door and yelled in the direction of a small yellow house on the far side of the parking area, “George!  You lazy bastard--you ain’t got all day for a nooner! Quit pokin’ that wife of yours and get your fat fanny over here!”
I was astonished and repelled by Farr’s uncouth language.  After a minute the door opened and a short very fat little man came out, still hooking one of the galluses of his blue overalls.  He shambled quickly across the parking lot, his fat belly shaking up and down.
As the man approached, Farr said, “Think I’ve got us a barn hand, George.”  He turned to me.  “What’s you name, boy?”
By then I was thinking that maybe I did not want to work for this uncouth man and I did not like him calling me “boy”.  Fat George was not exactly my idea of a barn boss, either.  But then I thought about the horses and the little mare with the sore leg, not to speak of making some money, and meekly said, “Conrad Frieze.”
“Well, Conrad, I’ll pay you a puck and a half a day, seven to four thirty, six days a week.  Sunday’s off because my partner, Charlie, insists we close up on Sundays and George feeds the horses then.  If it is a deal, be here at seven tomorrow in your working duds.”
It was with mixed emotions that I walked back up the dirt road to the bridge and across to Vancouver.  I was elated to have found a full-time job and I like the prospect of working with horses.  My uneasiness came from the fact that I dislike Farr almost on sight and I certainly coubted that I could take a liking to fat George.  I idly wondered if he had rally been screwing his wife at noon.  Oh well, I mused, mine dollars a week isn’t all that bad.  If I worked for two and a half months, that would be around ninety dollars all told.  I strode on home, whistling as I went.