The old woman put her shoulder against the horse's flank and shoved. There was, of course, no way 110 pounds could shift more than ten times the weight if it didn't want to move, but fortunately the gelding's little brain had never quite wrapped itself around the realization that she couldn't still haul him around as she had when he was a spindly-legged baby, and so he shifted over placidly and obediently.
She rested against him for a moment in the dimness of the stable, breathing the sweet scent of hay and the pungent but pleasant scent of horse. Closing her eyes, she ran one gnarled hand along his rump, feeling under her fingers the pattern on his coat, the thicker white spreading across his hips and the finer red of the dots scattered across it. She liked the snowflake patterns best, but Catspaw was a pretty horse, as well as a good one. She splayed her hand out across the pattern that had given him his name, the bigger pad and the four "toe prints", and wondered, just for a moment, if he was the last horse she'd own...
Shaking her head at her own foolishness, she began to vigorously brush his ribs, pushing against him as he leaned into the pleasant sensation. "Sweet boy, what say we go up the ridge today?" His neat, black-rimmed ears flicked backward to catch her voice and he whickered at her. She smiled and began singing softly to him.
"Have you seen her in the moonlight..."
Outside the barn the mountain rises toward Heaven, not steeply but surely, clad in pines and balsam firs and mountain laurel that spreads like flame across the tops of the hills in spring. The farm lies mostly in the shadow of the ridge, and some folks call it dark, but she's always called it sheltered. Safe. She was born in the house, and her mama taught her her letters there, and as far as she knows she'll live and die there. Some boy might well come a'courting, but she's got no brothers and the European War took her uncles before they could marry, and she figures to stay right where she is. She can't imagine no boy would ever make her heart soar like the mountain does, anyway.
Just lately she's been wondering if she wants any boy at all, even one who'd come and stay.
She swings into the saddle, looking upwards along the slopes, and nudges the old chestnut out of the yard. In moments they're among the evergreens, climbing. She begins singing softly.
"... silver rings upon her hand?"
Done with the brushing, she paused in the song long enough to say to him, "Foot" as she tapped his hock. He took his weight off that leg and lifted it for her; she rested his stifle on her thigh and bent his hoof back towards her so she could run the pick over it. Letting it go, she moved around him and did his other three. When she let go of his off fore he pushed at her gently with his long, narrow face, blowing into her shirtfront. She laughed gently at him and held out the carrot for him; he took it daintily from her palm, his lips soft and damp against her weathered skin. She thumped his neck and then wiped her hands off on the seat of her jeans, no one there to tell her not to, and went for his tack.
He dropped his head through the bridle, opening his mouth for the bit. She buckled the throatlatch and then grabbed the pad and tossed it onto his back. Reaching under his frosty belly she caught the girth and buckled it; Catspaw was a good horse, she'd never yet had to knee his stomach to make sure the saddle wouldn't slip sideways after a few yards. One last tug and then she led him over to the block. "The worst thing about getting old," she said to him untruthfully, "you can't jump like you used to be able to."
Again his ears flicked at her and, settled on his back on the thick 'bareback' pad that offered the best of both worlds-close contact with him as well as stirrups-she leaned forward and ran her hand along his crest, smoothing his thin Appaloosa mane. "I know," she said, "you can still jump. It's just me..." Straightening, she shook her head and pointed him out into the yard. After a moment, she picked up the song again, her smoke-roughened voice sliding between the evergreen branches, reaching for the sky.
"Have you seen her in the moonlight, silver rings upon her hand?"
It's an hour or more to the top of the ridge but it never seems that long. Or maybe it does, but what's an hour when you have eternity?
Up on the crest is a bald, no trees at all, just a scattering of laurel and grey boulders and grass green in spring and golden in fall. Coming out of the pines into the open is always a wonder, whether it's blazing sunlight, or a blanket of the smoky low lying clouds or a starlit night. Today's no different, and the riotous scarlet of the laurel is no more joyful than the lift of her spirit at the sight of it-and the lift of her heart at the sight of the thin, straight-backed girl sitting on a rock, waiting on her.
She's conscientious, always, of her beasts, and so she loosens the girth, running up a stirrup to remind her later, and unbuckles the bit, rebuckling it to hang under the old gelding's chin while he grazes. Only then does she run to the girl who's climbed down to meet her, only then does she wrap her in her arms, feeling a fierce desire. After a moment, she pulls away enough to look up into the grey eyes looking down at her, soft as a mourning dove, and then she's still feeling fierce but it's anger not desire.
She touches the purpling cheek, no, not quite, her fingers in the air just above it. 'I'll kill him,' she says fiercely, 'I'll kill him.'
'No, no.' The dark head shakes and the beloved hands reach to hold her, pull her back, and she comes, of course, but reluctantly.
'No, no, don't, you'll get in trouble, it doesn't matter.'
'Of course it does.'
'No, no it doesn't. Don't you see: I've left. I'm not going back, not ever, that's why, that's why it doesn't matter.'
She catches the other's hands in hers. The gold ring is gone, and in its place is a silver one, her mother's old and not valuable, and yet the most precious thing in the world. 'Do you mean it?'
'I mean it.'
She's holding eternity in her work-stained hands, and she cries for the first time in years. When they ride down the ridge together, the dark head is nestled against her throat and her song is gentle.
"Have you seen her in the moonlight, silver rings upon her hand?"
Catspaw grazed quietly near the cairn on the top of the ridge. This wasn't the first time they'd come here, and he'd grown used to it. He would flick his ears towards her as she talked, but he knew the difference and didn't come until she stood up and dusted off her rear, which wasn't until the dusk started creeping over the bald.
She held his reins for a moment, just looking out over the mountains. Today had been a pretty good day for the view, she thought. Still, you couldn't see near as far as you once could; she'd heard it was only about forty miles or so most days instead of upwards of a hundred. She turned around and looked at the cairn again.
"I don't know, boy," she said as she mounted. "I reckon if you can see to eternity, you can see bout as far as a body needs to."
He snorted and pulled at his bit, wanting his stall and his grain. She laughed, absurdly pleased with his simplicity.
"All right, then," she said, turning his head. "Let's go on down."
And as they entered the forest she began singing.
"Have you seen her in the moonlight, silver rings upon her hand? Now she wears a crown of sorrow, and her name is Julie Ann."
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