Chapter 16
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The Prettiest Horse Ever Drew Breath

Book excerpt: The Midnight Cool

Richfield, Tennessee; August 1916

Their boxes were packed and the wagon nearly loaded. The morning had broken bright and almost cool, at least for a Tennessee August. It was a perfect day, Billy and Charles agreed, heading out to the pasture gate, the perfect day for traveling.

Photo: Andrea Behrends

Charles McLaughlin and Billy Monday were on their way out of town. The last thing left to do now was catch the black mare out in the pasture, and then leave this place as they left all places, headed nowhere in particular, just on, trading horses as they went, a night here, two weeks there, always on, on to what might lie around the next bend in the road. The spring trading season had been miserable. In Celina they had been robbed blind by a ten-year-old boy. Along the Red River, they got lost in the woods and wandered for three days before coming out exactly where they started. The only good to come of the summer, as far as Charles could see, had been that sweet farm girl in Tuckertown, Kentucky, only they’d been run out of town just when he was getting somewhere with her. When last week they landed here, just hardly south of the border, in Richfield, Tennessee, it seemed like it would be more of the same. Then last night Charles hit the jackpot with the deal he got on this beautiful high-dollar horse.

She was a jewel, out there in the green pasture. Her black hide shone in the morning sun. Delicate pipestem legs. Tail set high and proud on her hindquarters. If you drew a line around her she would fit into a square. The kind of horse that people stopped to watch on the street. She made him want to shout for joy.

He had bought her from the richest man in town. Never mind that he had spent nearly everything they had on her, even after Billy had given him that speech about putting all his eggs in one basket. Look at her! She was a hell of a basket.

Billy paused at the gate, tugging one big ear. Blue sun-shot eyes full of mirth.

I bet you think that little Tuckertown girl would swoon to see you come riding in on a horse like this.

Charles gave him the same long-suffering look he had given him after the egg speech. Billy was getting soft, in his opinion, taking fewer risks in his old age. Charles was eighteen and certain of one truth: that he would, as his mother promised years ago, someday rise up and win the bread of life.

He opened the gate, whistling. The mare flung her head around at the sound of it and he should have noticed the change in her, but he strode right up and swung the lead rope to catch around her neck, and when it touched her she went after him, up on her hind legs, front hooves pummeling the air. He dodged and she came down hard, then reared again. Against the green of the grass she rose, a blur of black velvet hide and iron shoes and the yellow-white ivory of blunt horseteeth. He shouted and went to grab her mane, and for the third time she screamed and reared, thrashed the air just inches from his temple. When she landed she went after him with her teeth. That was when he dove for the fence, and she spun and thundered across the pasture.

Billy was laughing so hard it took him a minute to give him a hand up. Charles stood and shook out his long lanky frame.

Quit laughing.

Haven’t ever seen you move that fast without a girl in the near vicinity, Charlie boy.

Charles dug dust out of his eye with his thumb. The horse was far away, watching them.

Sonofabitch, he said. Something was slowly coming to him. She must have been doped up.

He looked at Billy, who regarded him with one eyebrow tented, the corner of his mouth upturned. His hair stuck out wild beneath the brim of his hat. Billy’s laugh was like a force of nature and always left him looking like a stiff wind had knocked him around.

You knew it, didn’t you? Knew it soon as I brought her in here last night.

Billy only grinned.

Monday, you sonofabitch.

Billy jogged out to retrieve Charles’s hat where it had landed in the grass. Before returning it he flipped it in the air, where it somersaulted three times.

Charles took it and jammed it back on his head.

Ah, don’t look so glum, Billy said. She’s only a touch hot. Charles spat and yanked his shirt.

Touch hot? Liked to have killed me.

They must have had her doped to the gills. Wonder what they used. Did a beautiful job of it. Just enough of a dose.

But I don’t understand. Charles shook his head. This wasn’t no usual place. It was high-class. Fellow’s got a pedigree long as the horse does. He drives a damn Pierce-Arrow.

Up on the road, a passing Model T sounded its horn at the landlord’s flock of chickens. The noise set the horse off again. She sprang into the air and cartwheeled to the other end of the pasture. Clods of grass flew up behind her. When she tore past the oak tree, four crows startled out of it, cackling.

Sonofabitch, Charles said, watching her. She’s bughouse crazy. He grabbed his forelock and groaned. All that money.

Billy put his hand on Charles’s shoulder. A strong big-spanned hand that Charles had felt on his shoulder a thousand times, with a weight which, after all the years, could speak to him nearly as plain as words.

Think of it as an investment in your education, Charlie boy. Like I always say, you get burned you got to learn to sit on the blister. If it makes you feel better, you got burned on what’s got to be one of the prettiest horses ever drew breath.

Let that damn horse catch herself, Charles said, shrugging off Billy’s hand and turning back to the shack. I need a drink.

Ain’t got nothing to drink, Billy called after him.

In Tuckertown, where they had spent the end of June and most of July, camped in the back of a cornfield, eating beans and tinned sardines, Billy had tried to teach two spotted ponies how to bow. They had been hauling the ponies around in their string for weeks, unable to unload them, and when they saw the poster for a coming circus on the side of the Tuckertown general store, Billy got the bright idea: teach the ponies a couple tricks, sell them to the circus for good cash money, make back everything the kid in Celina stole from them, get back on their feet in time for the fall season.

It hadn’t taken long for Charles to find the girl: Fern, sweet and cool as her name.

I got to be honest with you, he said to her after a week, the fireworks set off by young boys popping in the street behind them. They were standing across from the general store, in a little crowd waiting to see the town parade. We’re just here till the circus comes.

The circus?

He pointed to the poster on the side of the building.

Fern strained to see around the woman in front of her, then shook her head.

There ain’t no circus coming. That there poster is two years old.

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