Besides the horses, a rundown house and a dwindling remnant of land are the last things that remain to my old friend and neighbor, Russell Croft, who was once the biggest rancher in Big South County, now a derelict. Their condition, maintained with difficulty for years, gradually declines, paralleling his. Everything else he has sold to buy drugs.
He keeps the horses, last of many he once owned, pastured on a high plateau, their movements curtailed on the land side by a fence and on the sea side by steep cliffs, as if to symbolize a personal "last stand." But to me it's nothing so poetic. The site is merely the last piece of pasture Croft owns. There, bathed at certain seasons with frequent mists, and warmed in others by the sun, with a lean-to shed to protect them, year in and year out stand two thin, grey appaloosas. Besides the pasture and their companionship, they share a drinking trough, which is filled by a windmill driven pump that offers them fresh well water only when the sea breeze blows, as happens often enough on these headlands in Big South. I think he keeps the horses as a reminder of his past and possibly as a link to a better future. However, to me they are just horses that because of their owner's habits are occasionally in need of care and concern.
Just now back from a few weeks' absence, I check on them, and find them as usual standing together near the fence, curious to see who might be coming down their lonely road. The summer has been cool, with neither enough rain to refresh the grass nor enough sustained wind to pump the water. But things are actually much worse than I feared. With the pasture dried up, no feed laid on, and the windmill broken, the horses are starving. At the gas station, Tim volunteers that Russ hasn't been around for awhile. "He's probably back on the drugs, and you know what that's like," Tim says. Yeah, I know what that's like. I've had him in my cells overnight more than once, when he was in need of a taste of reality.
Back at the office, I decide to hitch up the horse trailer first, and to drive to Russ's house. He meets me at the door, looking gaunt and wild-eyed, and smelling bad. With his hand raised against the doorjamb in a slightly defensive pose, he's holding a cigarette, and his fingers quiver. "Hey, Kemo Sabi!" he jokes. But he looks abject, beaten, miserable. Noticing the horse trailer, he knits his brow, and then something clicks behind his eyes. Remembering, he moans inwardly, swaying noticeably in the doorway. As gently and evenly as I can, I say, "I've seen the horses, Russ. They're really bad off. How long since you been up there?" He's silent. "I don't want to charge you this time, but we might have to keep them. I'm gonna leave 'em with Charlie for now, and then we'll see. Anyway, you'd better clean this place up, 'cause I'll be back in an hour to search the house."
When I get back, with the horses in the trailer, he meets me in the yard. He has
washed up and changed his clothes, and says he wants a lift into town. He's going to check in at the detox clinic. As I hoped, my actions have jolted him back into some semblance of sobriety, and he's ready to try again. He says he needs to get straight to save the horses! Well, anything is better than nothing, so I smile. "No need to search the house, I guess?" "No, no," he says, "no need." Good. Whatever drugs were there are now gone, and the place is such a goddamned mess I hate to go in there anyway.
As we ride in silence down the cliff road and along the coast, I wonder if we are still friends. It's past noon, and he probably hasn't used today, so he's feeling a bit tense, and he's avoiding my eyes, staring moodily out the window at the ocean. I notice the sea breeze has picked up smartly.
just off shore
whitecaps that plunge and rear