Chapter 16
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The Old Man

It was a hard winter, and the horse had lived a long time

Bruce didn’t cry when the Old Man died, but he sure enough tightened his jaw a little. It was something he knew would happen eventually, but that didn’t make the pain any less.

It was a late winter day in February when Bruce and I were sitting in the Country Boy having lunch. Laura Weaver came in looking for Bruce and told him that it looked like a horse was down over at the Big Farm. Bruce is an old-timer himself, and he knew that people often mistook sleeping horses for sick or dead ones, but he also knew that Laura was a good judge of horses and was not apt to make a mistake. He was calm, but he looked worried.

The Big Farm, which at that time was known as the Jimmy Small Place or the old Sparkman Place, was a large tract of land down near Pete Davis’s store where Bruce kept his horses. He kept about seven mounts as I recall, a loose group he had assembled into a motley remuda over the years.

The oldest horse was named Match Point. He was thirty-three years old when Bruce acquired him, but if you looked closely, you could tell he had been a champion hunter/jumper in his day. He was owned by some people from Birmingham who had asked Bruce to care for the horse over the final years of his life. The owners didn’t expect him to last very long, and Bruce didn’t either. In fact, Bruce said he didn’t think the horse was strong enough to walk down to the creek for water the first time he got him out of the trailer.

But that was seven years before, and in Bruce’s masterful care, and in the company of other horses, the Old Man, as Bruce had begun to call him, grew back to health and vigor. Bruce checked on him every day and cared for him as though he were an aging adult, which, to Bruce, is what he was. The Old Man required a lot more attention than the other horses, but Bruce didn’t mind.

After a while, Bruce began to think that the Old Man was aggravating him deliberately, just to draw attention to himself. The horse had that kind of personality.

On several occasions during those years, Bruce thought that he might have lost the Old Man. People would stop at his house and say that there was a dead horse lying in the pasture down at the Big Farm, but when Bruce would go to check he’d usually find that it was just the Old Man sleeping in the sun with his belly stuck out. After a while, Bruce began to think that the Old Man was aggravating him deliberately, just to draw attention to himself. The horse had that kind of personality.

The winter of 1996 was the coldest in fifty years. For almost two weeks in January, low temperatures ran to seven below zero, and Bruce had to take food and water to the Old Man every day. In spite of the cold, the Old Man would often hide himself off on secluded parts of the farm and make Bruce tramp around in the cold and dark looking for him. Bruce laughed about it because every time he had trouble finding the Old Man he thought the horse finally must have died. But he always managed to find him and, in the end, he brought the Old Man through.

The cold spell broke in February and the sun came out and the temperature rose into the sixties for several days. It was that classic winter thaw that made us dream of spring, even though we knew there was a lot of weather still to come.

And that was when Bruce finally lost the Old Man.

When Laura told Bruce what she had seen that morning, Bruce and I drove down to the Big Farm right away. It was easy enough to laugh Laura’s story off as one of the Old Man’s tricks, but Bruce had a sort of intuitive concern this time and decided that we ought to take a look.

When we got to the farm, we found the worst. The Old Man was lying on his side next to the barn. He was alive, but he wasn’t able to stand. It looked as though he had lain down during the night and just didn’t have the strength to right himself. He had been trying, though: there was a deep gouge in the earth where he had been trying to dig enough footing to stand.

The Old Man was exhausted, but we made one more effort to get him to his feet. I got under his head and pushed while Bruce pulled on his tail, and then we both dragged his front legs around downhill to make it easier for him to stand. I’m surprised that we were able to move a thousand-pound horse, but we did. I think we both knew that this was the Old Man’s last chance.

We had made no progress after about an hour of effort, and Bruce finally concluded that he didn’t have any choice but to put the Old Man down. He stood and smoked a couple of cigarettes while he thought about it, and then the two of us walked back to the truck to get his pistol.

He stood and smoked a couple of cigarettes while he thought about it, and then the two of us walked back to the truck to get his pistol.

As we walked, I thought about how hard this was going to be for Bruce. I was thinking in particular about a terrible incident the year before when one of Bruce’s other horses, Buzzy, had torn his eye out on a tree limb during a storm. Bruce had been forced to shoot Buzzy, and the event was still vivid in his memory. He talked about it often. He had been talking about Buzzy that morning, in fact, while we tried to save the Old Man. So I told Bruce that maybe we should call the vet to make a final examination and give the Old Man a painless injection if he had to go. This situation was different from what he had faced with Buzzy, I said, so maybe we ought to wait for Dr. Warren. The day was warm and sunny, and the Old Man didn’t seem to be suffering very much.

Bruce didn’t agree right away. He is not a man whose mind is easily changed. But when we went back to where the Old Man lay, Bruce knelt next to him and thought for a long time. And he talked again about Buzzy. I suppose I could have offered to shoot the Old Man for Bruce, but I had no heart for it.

Bruce thought for a long time as he knelt, then he nodded and eased up on his old knees, and we walked together back to the truck to call Dr. Warren. I don’t know what changed Bruce’s mind, but he looked downright compassionate at that moment, as much toward himself, I thought, as toward the Old Man. Bruce may have felt that the Old Man, after his long struggle for life, deserved a quiet and dignified end, but what I really think is that Bruce could sense he was facing a terrible and lasting pain which he might never be able to shake.

We sat in the cab while Bruce made the call, and then we just sat and talked while we waited for the doc. The sun was warm through the windshield, and the winter fields had that soft, mild look they get during the February thaw. The pastures lay like yellow and brown blankets over the sleeping earth, and we could feel life warming under the low sun. Bruce and I sat in the warmth, and we talked, and gradually the tension drained away.

After a while, Dr. Warren arrived, and we walked back down to the barn. The doc looked carefully at the Old Man, and he told Bruce directly, but not bluntly, that the Old Man wasn’t going to make it. He told Bruce that putting the Old Man down was the best thing Bruce could do, and he explained how the painless process worked. He was able to remove some of the responsibility from Bruce’s shoulders and reassure Bruce that the decision to put the Old Man down was the only realistic option for him, as well as the kindest.

Bruce agreed quietly, adding that he would now be able to tell the owners he had obtained a vet’s certification that he needed to put the Old Man down. And he could tell them that the death had been induced quickly and painlessly. Those were perfectly good reasons for authorizing Dr. Warren to proceed, but I knew they didn’t tell the whole story of Bruce’s feelings.

Dr. Warren’s words were straight and matter-of-fact, but they were not casual or cold.

Dr. Warren prepared two injections of sodium pentothal, which he said would put the Old Man into a peaceful sleep before gradually stopping his heart and breathing. As he was preparing the injections, he spoke quietly about other horses he had been called upon to put down over the past few days. The cold weather had taken so much out of the older horses, he said, that many of them were dying, as the Old Man was, of cumulative causes. He told Bruce that we could not have saved the Old Man even if we had been able to get him back on his feet: he was just too old and tired. Dr. Warren’s words were straight and matter-of-fact, but they were not casual or cold. He knew how much this meant to Bruce.

With no delay, Dr. Warren put the two injections into a vein in the Old Man’s neck. He stepped back as I sat on the ground and stroked the Old Man’s nose, and after a few moments, he said that the Old Man was unconscious now. Then he and Bruce walked back to the truck while I stayed behind with the Old Man until he wasn’t breathing anymore. Then I walked back to the road and joined them.

Dr. Warren made a point of standing around to talk for a while afterward, and the talking was good. Laura had arrived by that time, and we talked of winter pasture and feeding, and Bruce told some of his funny and affectionate stories about his horses. We were like mourners standing around after a funeral, talking of nothing of any consequence, and putting our lives back in order. There was a lot of peace in the quiet air that day.

All the while, the Old Man’s carcass lay over next to the barn, but it didn’t seem connected with the Old Man now. The sight of the body didn’t sadden or frighten us; it just seemed like a vague, innocuous bruise left from a recent emotional strain. It was a reminder, but little more.

I wasn’t sure what that feeling meant, but when the life goes out of a body, the change is so drastic and complete that it is hard to imagine that the body was alive in the first place. And what is now missing from the body seems to have been so strong and vital that it could not possibly have depended on something as ordinary as flesh for its existence. Perhaps that is how people have imagined, simply from their everyday experience with death, the idea of an indestructible soul. The feeling was there that day, not because the death of the Old Man had been so moving, but because it had been so ordinary and called-for. As the Old Man died, life in all its power and beauty roared around us, looking toward spring.