Four Roses

By Jeff Streeby

It had gone cold on Sunday and snow had come in the night and in the morning everything was strange. Snow stood in little piles on the pads of the pricklypear by the shedrow, and the juniper by the saddle house lay flat under a load of snow that had slipped off the roof.

He stepped outside. Snow was still falling and it closed off the farther distances behind a curtain of white. The screen door slapped shut behind him.

Three red roses bloomed on the bush by the back steps of the house. He smiled at that.

The horses called to him when he came out. They were wet and they moved around in the corral with their ears laid flat against their skulls and when they moved their hooves made soft sucking sounds in the mud. He had fed them then and after a little while he had gone back into the house for the pistol.

He had always admired the pistol. It was an Iver Johnson top-break. Uncle Eddie bought it in 1909 and then it was Granddad's and then it was Dad's and now it was his. He liked the history of it. He liked the weight of it and the shape of it and the way it felt when he held it in his hand. He didn't like to use it.

He shook three cartridges out of the box and put them in his pocket. Then he carried the pistol out to the pickup and got in and laid the pistol on the seat.

Snow was still falling and covered everything but the blacktop. It melted when it fell on the road and the road was wet and black and shiny. The tires made a hissing sound on the wet pavement as he drove along and then the blacktop ended and the road was gravel. Snow covered the gravel road

except in the potholes and low spots, which were filled with water. Gravel rattled against the bottom of the truck and water splashed under the fenders as the truck bounced along. The heater fan clattered in its housing and the wiper motor whined and the wipers battered back and forth and the wet snow gathered along the bottom of the windshield. It was still early and the road was empty ahead and there were no tracks. The mesquite thicket along the side of the road was covered in snow and he could not see the fence line on the far side. He could not see the windrow of pines that he knew was just a quarter mile beyond and beyond that he knew were the ancient peaks and ridges of the Franklins. In the rearview mirror he saw the end of the blacktop grow indistinct and disappear behind the falling snow.

Ahead of him, he watched a coyote trot up out of the borrow pit and cross the road and saw where it slipped into the chaparral and disappeared.

He nearly missed the turn. At first he thought he had made a mistake but then he saw the outline of the house and the man standing in the yard and it was alright.

He stopped the truck by the yard gate and turned off the engine and got out.

He tucked the pistol into his belt.

The girl stood on the porch and watched him as he walked up. She had no coat or hat and the snow dusted her red hair and her shoulders. Her eyes were red from crying but she was not crying now.

The yard gate was open and the man motioned for him to come through. His old Stetson was wet and dark and a little pile of snow had collected on the top of it. The man's yellow slicker had blood on the sleeves and on the front and when he took his hands out of the pockets there was blood on his hands.

"Sorry to drag you out in this but you know, I just couldn't do it. Not with Amanda watching me like that. She's out back."

"No bother."

They walked through the yard to the back of the house and out the back gate toward the barn.

"That her?"

The horse stood quietly. Her head hung low and her ears drooped. Her eyes were closed. Snow had piled up along her topline and in her forelock. Her breathing was shallow and labored. She was haltered but not tied and the leadrope lay in a little heap on the ground.

"Yeah. I thought she might bleed out and I wouldn't have to call, but it's been since last night now and Doc's gone."

"Ain't that Mandy's barrel horse?"

"Yeah. They was turned out yesterday when that Norther blowed in. They got the wind up their tails and went tearin' around. That two-year-old I got from Javier's cut loose with both hind feet. Jesusmaryan'joseph. Sounded like a gunshot when it broke."

He bent then to look at the wound. A long spear of bone showed through the muscle of the forearm. The lower leg sagged at an odd angle and blood was caked thickly on it below the break and where the mare stood there was a dark stain under the snow.

"Well hell. Ain't no fixing that. Damn shame."

He took a yellow grease marker out of his coat pocket and marked the mare's face with an "X" from left ear to right eye and then from right ear to left eye.

He fished the cartridges from his coat and put them in the pistol and rotated the cylinder so a round would come under the hammer and snapped it shut.

When he looked up he saw that the girl had come down from the house. She stood by the corner of the barn watching him.

He faced the mare and drew back the hammer and placed the barrel a foot from the intersection of the yellow lines of the "X" on the mare's forehead and touched the trigger and as he did the mare coughed once and bobbed her head and spoiled his aim and he knew as she fell that he had not killed her.

She lay in the snow grunting and her legs moved as if she were running and the broken leg moved at the shoulder but not below. The ball had struck the mare at the base of the ear and passed through her head and lodged in the shoulder. Blood pumped from the head wound and sprayed his boots and jeans as she thrashed in the snow.

He tried to draw back the hammer to fire again but the pistol was jammed so he had to break it open and fool with the cylinder and the hammer and at last he got it fixed. He cocked it and he caught the mare by the halter and he placed the pistol against her skull and fired.

She jerked and stiffened and then was still.

Blood poured from the hole at the intersection of the yellow lines of the "X" and from her nostrils and pooled in the snow under her head. Her blood steamed in the cold.

When he looked around the girl was gone.

The man nodded once in his direction then turned away toward the machine shed.

He had gone home then and cleaned the pistol and put it away. That afternoon in the bar he drank whiskey and considered the red roses blooming in the snow.

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