A Prince

Old Daryl was a morbid sort. By the time he was sixty-five, he had his will all sorted, his bills finally all paid off, his porch rocker put where he could watch the sunset until he took part in it.

When his buddies, the guys he’d grown up with, gone off to fight Hirohito with, stood in marriage reception lines with, and more often now, sat vigil beside coffins with, got sentimental and self-pitying about their aches and pains and their widower loneliness, he’d remind them they had come back from killing Hirohito, they had wives and families and farms and a sixty years some men they knew had not had. “Besides,” he’d say, “What’s the alternative.”

In his mid-seventies, Daryl acquired an already-broke cattle pony he called Prince. The horse rode smooth as oiled water and could cover mountain ground as good as any horse he’d ever been on. Prince also worked cattle as if it were his favorite game, ears back and quick footed to turn a fool cow. And as long as Old Daryl could swing a lariat, Prince could handle his end of catching and holding—rope taut—any recalcitrant calf, till Daryl tottered to the end of the rope to take care of whatever the calf needed taking care of.

That’s one thing about Old Daryl. If riding needed doing, he was there. He may not be where youth and daring were required, he might be in the dusty tail of a drive, but he was there. He could usually handle a calf if he needed to. And in the summer as he always had, he saddled Prince to ride the hayfields, change the water, carry irrigating dams on him. Even at eighty-two.

Maggie, of course, was always telling him, “One of these days you are not going to be getting off that horse the way you want to,” meaning “you are going to get dumped on your noggin and be put out of your misery.” But one thing about Old Daryl, he “by God,” was going to die with his boots on. In fact, any time anybody around a branding fire or leaning on a corral rail commented on what a fine pony old Prince was, Daryl would nod. Then, with a face bland of any humor, he would joke, “Yeah he’s pretty damned tractable. I been teaching the old bastard to roll over on me when the time comes. And he has shown himself quite apt at learning this little talent.”

Here Daryl would pause before he went on. “Yep, almost too good. I got to tell him every morning, ‘today is not the day, Prince.’”

Another pause. “So far he has been accommodating.”

If he said this in front of Maggie, she would roll her eyes and grimace. But of course, anybody else would grin and sometimes say, “Careful what you ask for, Old Boy.”

Then one morning, Daryl went out to the pasture to round up his Prince, and Prince wasn’t there. Apparently, the old pony had become tired of waiting for Daryl to give the go ahead and had taken the final roll all by himself. He lay stretched out in the pasture, the crows already pecking at his eyes, stone cold dead.

It was two hours before Daryl came back to the house. But Maggie saw him getting on the backhoe down by the shop and starting it up. She heard it out in the pasture for a while. Then a silence. Then it started back up again and after a while Daryl drove it back to the place in front of the shed. And stopped it.

He came in and said, “Prince died.”

“Well,” Maggie said, “Bound to happen, sooner or later.” She wasn’t any more sentimental than Daryl was, though probably not as morbid.

Daryl went out to his rocking chair and watched the clouds out over the mountains. From there on the porch, if he turned a bit he could have seen the brown mound of dirt out in the pasture. But he didn’t turn.

They finally found Old Daryl there one evening about a year later sitting in the rocking chair. Stone cold dead, his blank eyes turned off to where the yellow light still hung above the mountain ridges.

Maggie claims she heard the sound of hooves galloping away, off to the west.

Posted in response to the WOD challenge sting, because it stings when life plans go awry.

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