The pre-dawn air was clear and cold. I could hear the snorts and champing of horses. Someone had rapped on the window. I stepped on a stone floor. I splashed icy iron-tinged water on my face.
In the near darkness, Deja and Don stood by their trucks with two horses. Both trucks had a trailer attached. One horse was already trailered. The sleep, the night air, and the cold wash had cleared my head. I felt a little foolish about the previous evening.
Don greeted me. If there was any resentment or concern his friendly face did not reveal it. “Morning, are you ready to see some of our country?”
I was not sure about the horse part of the ride. Stupidly, I had neglected to inform my hosts that I was deathly afraid of most animals--and I had never ridden a horse.
Don's truck was an older model of Deja's with a larger two-horse trailer attached.
"Danny, we’ll have you ride on Jasper. He's easy on new riders." I surveyed the horse. He was an old gray fading into white. He was busy with something on the ground, but lifted his head as Don and I approached. His fat brown eye found us. He snorted. The thatch of white eyelid flashed disapproval. Don smoothed his short mane and spoke to the beast. "That old hot blood of yours wants to run again. Don’t you, old boy."
"Jasper came to me from my uncle when I was fifteen. He's a golden oldie." Don guided the horse up a small ramp into the trailer.
I rode with Don in his truck, Fritz and the Husky with Deja. Soft rock oozed from the dash. I attempted to apologize for the night before, but Don waved me off, “the road can do that to you. You’re a long way out.”
A nasally disc jockey read news, farm reports and the weather. Mixed precipitation promised to creep in from the west “later towards evening,” he intoned a good deal on a beef quarter could be had at Ready Meats, corn futures, udder cream.
Don held a steady pace with Deja behind. The scenery snapped by, noticeably the odd shaped rock formations. The short formations seem to have been locked in place-- frozen in flight, swept in one direction. Again, I recalled the gargoyles in the city.
I made an attempt at conversation, “Don, have you always been a rancher?”
His eyes darted from the road, “I’m a pilot, an airline pilot. I’m not at the ranch usually. Deja runs things here. She works in her studio, too.”
“She still dances?”
“She paints. We’ll have to show you some of her work. We might have done that last evening.”
I caught the rebuke. The guy was used to having his subtleties understood. He had artfully wrapped his wife into the “we” - I caught that too.
“I knew Deja only briefly in high school back in Maryland. we worked together for a while. I was surprised she even recognized me. Must be the accent,” I offered.
“Deja is a special woman. She has a painter’s eye. She’s a collector. She is always bringing home strays. She adopted Furlin--rescued from a flood some years ago. She tends to sick animals, countless wounded birds...”
I adjusted my seat. Furlin the Husky, cute. I felt the hard edge of the half-pint of Jack I slipped into my jeans. A part of me wanted to bail, drink Jack, and get back to the Aspen. I marveled that the pilot would spend this time with me--one of his wife’s strays.
“We met through the airline. She was a stewardess.”
I could imagine her moving easily in the aisle, comforting nervous passengers.
“I’ve never flown.” His eyes shifted from dash to road. I could see him in the flight deck scanning the six-pack of dials with his hand firm on the joystick.
“I’ll take you up some time in the Piper, if you’re around, but let’s enjoy this pony ride. Don’t worry, by the way. You’re on Jasper, he’s done this one a hundred times. This is an easy ride. Flat country with just one stream to cross. The weather is holding up nicely.”
The pilot brought the pickup to a soft stop at a gas station. The place had a pot of coffee steaming on a burner. I was grateful. I bought a couple of candy bars for the ride.
From the station to the park was five minutes. Untrailered the horses nickered to Don and Deja as they performed the various prep chores. I stood back with mounting apprehension--literally. Jasper would cast a skeptical glance my way, the tuft of white on the fat eyeball communicated disdain.
“Perfect riding weather,” Deja said. Fritz and Furlin raced after each other in an attached field. I was happy for the dog. I’m sure my dark view stressed him.
Deja swung easily atop Saturn, a young jet black with a lively white patch between her eyes. The muscles of the sleek horse undulated behind the fringe at the bottom of Deja’s brown leather chaps worn over blue jeans. Don was similarly attired with western shirt, vest, and cowboy hat.
Despite Don’s offer of extra garb, my only concession to ride wear was a Denver Broncos ball cap I bought at the station. “You’ll need to shade your eyes,” Don had said. I resisted the urge to tell Don the irony of buying the cap of a team I had accidentally played against as an Oakland Raider.
Mounting time had come. Don stood by a dubious Jasper. My first attempt at the stirrup hit free air as the horse rolled his barrel ever so slightly. Don spoke softly into the ear of the nuzzling old horse. Don signalled me with a raised eye. My next stab at the stirrup hit and I belly-crawled onto the saddle. My orange hat toppled to the ground on the other side of the horse. I recovered some dignity and sat straight holding the reins and the horn of the saddle.
Don handed me my cap. “Let the horse do the work. He knows the trail, every dip and low branch. I wouldn’t put anyone in danger. I’ll be behind you with my wife in the lead. Enjoy Wyoming!’
“Thank you,” I quavered. The clearing was bordered with a rim of bare aspen trees. The Laramies were blue and white on the horizon. Crisp fresh mountain air blew in and chased the animal smell away. The sensation of height took a little adjusting. The seat was comfortable; the bottle a was nuisance as it dug in but I didn’t want to pull it out and embarrass myself.
Deja nudged Saturn into a slow walk. Jasper followed somehow making the saddle bounce just enough to jostle the bottle. We entered the woods on a wide, bare, damp trail littered with browned leaves.