Hero Again

by Joe Romero

Only a young black walnut tree stands where an old horse used to roam. You can drive past it now and probably not notice how lonely and misplaced it looks in the middle of its own fenced pasture. Besides, anyone who might notice the tree would just passingly consider it the rebellious bastard outcast from any of a dozen nearby orchards. However, as many assumptions go, this would be wrong.

The tree is touched nearly 300 days a year by rays from a warm sun. Trying to show its appreciation, the tree stretches imperceptibly further toward the sky each day. The humid air and ample moisture in the ground quench the tree’s thirst, worked up during these daily calisthenics. From below, the roots of the tree draw into its body the limitless nourishment of rich Northern California soil; and within this soil, through this network of roots, the spent body of a horse, once thought to be ageless, passes on its strength. Though the tree is still an infant, even an untrained eye would be struck by the almost muscular quality developing in its trunk, and the stubborn endurance already exhibited in its will to grow.

The brisk bite in the air was as unexpected to Walt as the frigid feeling that gnawed at the center of his chest. The black midnight sky that surrounded him only mirrored the loss of light he noticed inwardly. He paused at the door to his lonely house and turned toward the empty sky.

“God must have forgotten to turn the stars on for the night,” Walt remarked out loud to himself with a slight laugh in his voice. Even as he searched for something to smile about, tears gathered at the bottoms of his eyes. And they burned.

He stood on his unlit porch for what seemed like years, not wanting to enter his own home. He had experienced loss before, including the loss of his carefree childhood and its oblivious innocence; the loss of his personal will once he had enlisted in the Army; and the losses of friends and family. Many of those friends and family members were lost to death, and others to personal convictions – theirs and his. He had expected these losses. Sickness, war, and politics are constant factors of change in the lives of man. Walt had learned this early, thus rarely became attached to anyone or anything.

The horse, however, was a proverbial exception to Walt’s general rule of detachment, and he had not prepared himself for its now imminent loss. Politics and war could not affect the bond between this man and horse. Geography could not separate them for long. Even sickness had never been life-threatening. However, after being allowed to romp, gallop, and trot through life for forty-one years, Father Time had at last caught up to the beast, and Walt was helpless to turn the old man back. Walt prayed.

Walt had long before given up on trying to convince himself God existed. Since he was an eighteen-year-old in Vietnam he was well aware the evil man could inflict on man. More than man’s capability of evil, Walt had seen the ease with which it could be exercised on a nearly daily basis.

This is not to say Walt Barlow did not have “faith.” He was once told by a friend to “Have faith, brother. You gotta have faith in something. Anything.” This friend had given Walt a quarter-sized wooden peace symbol he still wore tied around his neck on a short length of rawhide shoelace. The next day, the friend unwittingly stopped a rifle round that might have belonged to the enemy with his forehead.

It was this trinket in which Walt placed his only true faith. He knew it would always be there for him at the end of each day; and at night, as he fell asleep under the constant threat of being killed, or worse, crippled by a faceless, nameless assassin, Walt would reach up to the little peace sign and rub it between his thumb and forefinger.

“Have faith,” he’d remind himself. “You’re gonna make it.”

Then he would dream.

In eighteen months of intense, close combat experience, Walt seldom was able to get a full night’s sleep. It was this lack of sustained sleep that all but robbed Walt of a dreamworld. Fighting someone else’s war was the nightmare that was with him each waking moment, but dreams in his sleep were a rare luxurious escape. Though he was positive he had other dreams, the only one he could recall was the recurring dream about his loyal boyhood companion, Bucephalus. Walt called the horse “Bo” for short.

Walt’s brain more than compensated, however, for the lack of quantity and variety of dreams he had with the surreal vividness with which they came. The colors were at once muted and brilliant in a way not captured in nature. He could imagine a master painter chasing these colors for life and not ever getting them to canvas. And he was always in the fields of his family’s Northern California ranch, waist-deep in the alfalfa they raised for hay. Walt would dream he was running through these fields toward Bucephalus. Bucephalus would be standing in the distance near a tree, only the black and white of his paint coat retaining their true hues.

The wind was always blowing, causing the alfalfa to sway back and forth like the hips of a million belly dancers. Bo’s perfect, long black mane and tail would join the alfalfa in the slow-motion dance. The closer Walt came to reaching the horse, the harder it was to see him. The defined lines of the scene would begin to run together as though he was looking through rippling water. Then Walt’s legs would begin to give up beneath him, and he would feel like he did as a dreaming boy, unable to outrun an unseen monster.

In the distance an exploding shell would wake him.

Walt’s prayer was not a prayer of request. God owed him nothing, Walt figured; and it would be silly to pray for the horse to live any longer. Forty-one years was already long beyond the realistic expectations of any horse’s owner. Walt prayed to thank God, if He did exist, for giving him the one creature in the world he could and did count on. It was knowing Bucephalus would be at home waiting for him that helped Walt through eighteen months of living hell, popularly known as the “Vietnam Conflict.” It was looking forward to riding Bo again, as carefree as the ten-year-old he was when they first rode together, that kept Walt as careful as he could be, even as he risked death earning Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, and more. It was Bucephalus that brought three generations of Barlow men together, time and again, when nothing else could; and it was Bo’s constant presence to which Walt could always return when all else seemed to be going wrong. It was this unconditioned faithfulness Walt would miss most.

Walt slowly stepped off the redwood porch he had built at his entrance. The last step let out a low creak as though in pained empathy for the crushed man. Walt’s hands were stuffed deep into the pockets of his Carhartt coat – the cold weather uniform of any real construction man. From a distance, Walt almost looked to be hugging himself. He might as well. No one else was around to comfort him.

Walt had suddenly become self-conscious as he took long strides in the direction of his truck. He momentarily forgot the real pain he was feeling. His habitual detachment was arm-wrestling the hurt he was feeling for the horse. Detachment was winning. Again. Two steps from reaching the truck, Walt’s lower back tensed involuntarily, as it began a muscular chain reaction to turn the rest of his body around. Finally, a solitary drop from the saltwater reservoir Walt’s eyelids were holding back slowly rolled out onto his cheek and down to the corner of his mouth. He caught the drop, the first tear of pain Walt had tasted in more than thirty years, with the tip of his tongue. As though the tear was the most powerful muscle relaxant, anti-depressant, and truth serum, pressed into one by the mortar and pestle of Walt’s own heart, all hesitation to follow his pain to the side of the dying horse melted away.

Ninety of the calmest minutes of Walt’s life later, and well into the early hours of morning, he had reached the ranch he grew up on. He was slowly rolling up the long drive that ran along one side of the pasture in which he and Bo had grown up together. Any other time Walt would have already been greeted by the gentle giant. For an instant he saw his old friend galloping toward him, but realized it was only a memory chasing him.

Walt drove straight to the barn where he knew he would find Bo preparing for his exit. As he walked to the stalls, Walt heard Bo sigh what was most certainly a sigh of relief upon smelling Walt as he approached. Walt finally found Bo in the largest of the six stalls. Walt’s father had put down three times as much straw as he would have for any other horse. Bo was curled up tightly in the straw, looking quite probably the way he did moments after birth. A bucket of water and three untouched leaves from a bale of hay were within the horse’s reach so that he wouldn’t have to expend vital energy to get to them.

The eyes of the two old friends met. The horse blinked slowly enough to make Walt wonder if they would open again. They did. Walt grabbed two saddle blankets hanging in the tack room and entered Bo’s stall. The horse’s head lowered. Walt noticed the tracks of dried-up mucus at the corners of the suffering horse’s eyes, looking painfully like the tracks of tears Walt must have by then had on his face. Walt spread both blankets over Bo and sat on the floor of the stall, against the wall nearest Bo’s head. Both closed their eyes.

Walt couldn’t know it, but even as he fell through a mental wormhole of time and space, reliving every moment spent with the horse he could summon, Bo was dreaming with him. Less in pictures and more in scents and sounds, Bo was still with Walt on the journey through memory, perhaps understanding the passage of time more than any other horse had.

Walt’s goodbye to the old horse, friend and soul’s lighthouse he was, began to transform into a goodbye to all Walt had lost. Finally, Walt accepted these losses – the shortened childhood; understanding from his parents; and even love from his own children.

Walt slid closer to Bucephalus. He stroked the long face of his pained patient. As the man let go of wakeful consciousness and returned once again to the mysteriously-colored dreams of his past, his head slowly leaned toward and ultimately against the neck of the horse. As Bo exhaled his last, Walt became a hero – again.