Rick stood next to his wife in the living room looking out the open window. Their son William waited at the end of the block for the bus, adjusting and readjusting the straps of his backpack. After a time a few other children soon joined him. It was at the point in the morning where it could be mistaken for dusk. There were no clouds and the sky held a dark and drowsy shade of gray and for a time now sat resisting the dark blue that slowly crawled and was turning light blue in the east, which was tinted blood red at the very edge from light of the morning sun not yet quite raised. Some stars clung and blinked insipidly on the opposing slope of the firmament.
“All I’m saying is that I’m concerned,” Joanna said. “Look what happened to Reeve, Louis the fourth, Oleg the Prophet.”
“You can’t count Oleg; it was the snake in the skull that did him in.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Don’t you think he’s a little young?”
“I was his age when I first rode,” Rick said.
“You also grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. All you had were horses,” said Joanna. “I don’t see why we can’t throw him a normal birthday party at an arcade or something.”
The bus rounded the corner of the block. It rumbled and stridently came to a halt. The doors split open with a hiss and the schoolchildren began filing in. William turned and waved and Rick and Joanna waved back and the boy boarded the bus.
“Thought we could do something a little different,” Rick said. “Something he and his friends could brag about at school.”
Joanna pulled her robe tight and shook her head and looked down at her feet. “Where would this even take place?”
“Up at Plug’s place in New River. He has a few mares and acres and acres of land.”
“He’s okay with this?”
“Yes. I talked to him about it last week. We owe him a visit anyhow.”
“I just really don’t know.”
“About Plug or the horses?”
They stood looking at one another.
“You know as much as I do I enjoy Plug’s company.”
“It’s not like they’re not broken. He keeps them fresh. He can still ride.”
“I just think it’s dangerous is all.”
“I rode for years and nothing bad ever happened to me,” said Rick. “And you should’ve seen William’s face when I brought up the prospect of horseback riding.”
“You should’ve discussed it with me first. I’ll be the bad guy.”
“It’s not for another week and a half.”
“What’s your point?”
“I’m just saying give it some thought. You don’t have to make your mind up this instant.”
Rick turned the car onto the 202 and merged on the 101 and when he exited onto the 17 he put the cruise control on. Joanna read one of those celebrity magazines in the passenger seat with her bare feet propped on the dash. Two boys aside from their own were in the backseat talking and telling jokes and laughing. Rick put his hand to the vent and let the cool air blow over his palm.
“Is that better,” Rick said.
The boys nodded.
It was early afternoon when they arrived to New River. Gravel rattled beneath the tires when the concrete quit and the car kicked up clouds of rich yellow dust. The surrounding hillsides were pale brown and scattered with rocks streaked with red. Saguaros and Mexican broom and other thistly flora were spread across the desert floor. They passed several small adobe houses all bearing the same shade of beige with slightly different tones of brown accents beneath windows or on doorways. Their ceramic tile roofing looking like thick red scales pulled from some massive sea-beast. A low adobe wall of deep red encased one house. Fire barrel and acacia planted and spaced evenly all alongside of it. Some decorative painted clay pots sat upon stacked rocks.
“I forget how beautiful it is out here,” Joanna said.
“Why’d we never take a look at a place in this area?”
Joanna put the magazine in her lap. She turned to Rick and tilted her head and pulled her sunglasses down to the middle of her nose where they balanced delicately on the bridge. “Would you really want to commute all the way to work?”
“No. I suppose not.”
Plug was sitting in a lawn-chair just outside of the front door when Rick pulled into the drive. Plug smoked a rolled cigarette and wore a brown shirt with pearl snaps and blue jeans tucked into beige boots made of ostrich. He nodded and raised the hand with the cigarette fixed between two fingers. A small ribbon of smoke drifted off the blackened end and curled as it took the wind.
“Good to see you, Plug,” said Rick.
Plug rose slowly from the chair and took Rick’s hand and smiled. His entire face seemed to wrinkle all at once. He turned to Joanna and nodded: “Mrs. Sibley.”
“Boys. Say hello. William, you remember Plug, right?”
The boys all said hi. William said that he sure did.
“Thanks again for doing this,” Rick said.
“Shoot. Could use the company,” Plug said. “Don’t often get too many visitors. When a man reaches my age there sure ain’t many folk who’re still around to drop on by.”
Plug flicked the cigarette on the ground. Rick watch as it bounced and the ember broke off and looked like any other rock in the sunlight once the smoke petered out. Plug opened the door and motioned for the visitors to come in. A faint pop in the distance echoed and faded like weak thunder.
“What was that?” Joanna said.
“Sounded like a gunshot ways off,” Plug said. “Kids shootin cans and such.”
The backyard consisted of three and a half acres of land encased by a large wooden fence that Plug and Rick had erected some years ago. In the foreground was the horse barn. A four-stall structure made of pine and oak and gates painted green and made of steel. Plug had taken an old foldout table and set it up on the back porch and covered it with a white tablecloth held down by a wire sculpture centerpiece of a rider with a lasso in hand. There was a large bowl filled with tortilla chips and several glass bowls not yet filled with different color salsas that Plug had made. The salsas were in mason jars next to each bowl waiting to be opened. Little metal chairs with strapped-down cushions stood tucked into the table. A cooler sat pushed against the wall filled with ice and Coke cans and beer. They ate chicken and brown rice with potato salad off red faience plates. Both Plug and Rick sipped beer from cans between bites while Joanna and the boys drank Coke over ice in glasses. The presents sat opposite the table in front of a sliding-glass door that led to the living room. The temperature had steadily risen since morning and plateaued just shy of ninety degrees in the shade. Joanna remarked how quiet it was out here. No car horns or sirens or the perpetual the din of city streets. There was little else than the slight percussion of silverware on the plates between quips of dialogue.
“Never was one for big cities,” Plug said. “Like to be able to look up at the sky at night and see stars, if you take my meaning.”
When everyone finished eating Rick collected the plates and silverware and brought them into the kitchen and set them on the counter and filled the sink up. He forked the remaining tidbits of food into the trashcan and put the plates and cutlery into the soapy water. When he came back outside the presents were on the table and Plug was standing off a ways smoking and squinting in the sunlight.
“Want to go ahead and open these up kiddo?” said Joanna.
Rick watched as his son looked over the cluster of gifts and then turned and looked out over the yard. The horses stood idly in their stalls and one whinnied loudly and swung its head and William looked back at Rick.
“Presents will still be here,” Rick said. “If you’d rather ride now.”
Several minutes later Plug came back walking and guiding a horse by the reigns. The horse was tawny in color with a mane as black as spent coals. A red saddle was strapped upon the animal. A thick white stripe ran from between its eyes down to the nostrils. White ran from just below the joint and down to the hooves on the hind legs. William stood looking at the animal as though looking at something he’d only heard or read about but never truly knew whether it existed or not until this very moment.
Plug hoisted William onto the saddle and told him to hold the horn. William’s feet didn’t quite reach the stirrups. Plug handed the reigns to Rick.
“I thought this would be more difficult,” said Joanna.
“It’s like taking a dog out. I lead, it follows.”
Rick walked along the edge of the yard in the heat near the fence with a firm grip on the reigns and everyone surrounded the animal as if exalting a war hero returning home. When they reached the end of the yard they turned around and started walking back. Some thirty yards off across the fence walking along the plain were two boys. By their clothing Plug recognized them to be the Hollis brothers of the next house over about a mile and a half. They walked and smoked a cigarette that they passed between one another. One of the brothers carried a rifle by its strap on a shoulder. Rick and the rest continued walking on and one of the birthday goers asked William when it was going to be his turn and William said in a minute, that he wanted to ride just a little bit longer. Rick handed the reigns over to Joanna for a moment to roll up the sleeves of his shirt to the elbow. When she handed them back she looked well of it out of her hands. Rick ran the backside of his forearm across his head. Plug walked a little behind and pulled out the pouch of tobacco from his shirt pocket. A slight breeze started up and rustled the bushes and failed to bring any relief from the heat. Rick brought the horse to a halt.
“Everything okay?” Joanna said.
“Yeah, just give them a second.”
“Who, the boys?”
Rick pointed. “No.” A little ways in front of them stood two young javelina nibbling on prickly pear.
“That’s odd. Don’t see them much during the day,” Plug said. “Especially when it’s this hot out.”
“They won’t come at us will it?” said Joanna.
“No, they don’t see too good,” Plug said. “Just listen to Rick and hunker down a bit.”
The two javelina leisurely walked in circles and sniffed and nipped at other plants as if they didn’t notice the group and the horse and they probably didn’t. They kept this up for another minute before scuttling off beneath the fence. Rick resumed walking, but at a slower pace at Joanna’s request after Plug cracked a joke about rattlesnakes and scorpions.
“How are you doing up there bud?” Rick said.
“Good. This is fun.”
“Does this make me a cowboy, daddy?”
“You feel like one?”
“A little bit. Yeah.”
“Then I suppose it does.”
Rick spat on the ground and turned to Plug and said a cold beer sounded good right about now. Plug lit the cigarette and said he agreed. The hooves of the horse hit the ground rhythmically and clattered against the rocks as it walked. Joanna walked next to the horse with a hand on the cuff of her son’s jeans. Looking back Rick saw the two boys fixed on the legs of the animal as they watched each footfall attentively and scurried closely behind it, half-bent and sideways like crabs.
Rick heard a faint holler and looked over the fence and saw one of the Hollis brothers jumping about and shouting loudly while the other brother slung the rifle around and jammed the butt into the pit of his shoulder and took aim. A shot rang out and cracked and echoed and died off. The horse nickered loudly and beat its hooves against the earth.
“Whoa. Easy, easy,” said Rick. “Hold on tight, buddy. Okay?”
“Okay,” said William.
“Please,” Joanna looked at Rick wide in the eyes. “Just get him down.”
“It’s fine. The horse just got a little spooked.”
Meanwhile, Plug had walked over and up to the fence and placed both hands on it. “Goddammit. You boys knock that racket off. You’re old enough to know better not to be shootin so close.”
The Hollis brothers kept looking down. Kept running. Then Rick saw the tan and black and grey peppered hide of the javelina come out from behind bushes. Plug yelled once more and waved his arms above his head and the brothers continued running and the one had lifted the rifle and chambered another round. The boy slowed his steps for an instance while taking aim and again fired. Then two more shots quickly followed. Blam blam. The sound cracked loudly like dried wood giving under some tremendous weight. Rick felt the reigns tightened and he turned and saw the bottom-side of the two front hooves held high in the air. The animal’s eyes were wide and black and searching. He yanked down on the reigns and the horse came down heavily on its front legs. The force threw William a little forward on the saddle, but still he held onto the horn tightly. He was crying loudly and looked wildly in all directions. Rick tugged on the reigns and brought the animals face close to his and ran a hand down between its eyes and talked quietly to it. Rick pulled William down from the saddle and the boy wrapped himself tightly around his father and continued to cry onto his shoulder. Over William’s shoulder Rick saw Joanna crying and leaning over the body of one of the birthday goers, repeating I don’t know what to do I don’t know what to do. He put William down and told him to stay put and rushed over. The child lay on his back on the hot earth with his eyes closed and his arms splayed out above him. He looked relatively unharmed except for a little cut just above his left eye. It had started to bruise some around it. The other friend stood a little ways off, looking as though not knowing what to do or how to act and did nothing but stand still and silent. Rick knelt down and put an ear to the child’s lips and then pulled away and put two fingers on the throat and after he removed them stood up.
“Plug, mind getting back to the house and calling an ambulance.” Rick said.
Plug had walked up from the fence and stood close to Rick. Rick heard the old man exhale loudly and in the corner of his vision saw Plug shaking his head slowly. Joanna had walked over to and collected the other child and brought him over to William where she now crouched and spoke calmly and collectively to each child.
“It ain’t gonna do much, is it,” Plug whispered into Rick’s ear.
“No. It won’t do a bit of good. But it’s the only thing any of us can do now.”