by Ian Hilgendorf
He pushes through the barn door into a sun burned sky filling with clouds, tilts the brim of his hat, and rubs the back of his neck with a handkerchief. The smell of work stings his nostrils. His horse in the corral across the way kicks up clouds of dust – been waiting all day. He spits into the dirt and rubs the saliva in with his toe before limping across the yard and leaning into the corral. On the fence post sits a weathered saddle, the pommel pronounced in the air like a raised thumb. He rubs his hand over the warn leather. The stallion doesn’t calm, its hind legs kick against the sky.
The cowboy’s head falls and he looks at the dust- ashes to ashes. He can hear the beast snorting, his wild crop of hair flails about his eyes as he rears back again.
His voice is chipped, razor sharp. It cuts through the air, whip-like against the horse’s flanks. The steed slows, still tossing its head. Its chest swells. The cowboy almost sees the animal’s heart beating against its flesh, blood pumping through veins as real as his own.
Turning, he eases his way through the grassless yard, hands in his pockets and looking over his shoulder. The horse watches him climb the porch, its beady eyes blinking in consternation. The screen door snaps against the door frame as he enters the kitchen.
He moves into the bedroom where the curtains are drawn, his bed unmade. Falling to his knees, he digs beneath the bed. After a moment he grasps the handle of a box and pulls it to him.
Removing a chain from around his neck, he unlocks the box. From it he takes a gun and a few bullets which he drops into the chambers. He tucks the gun into his waist band, its cool steal against the sweaty flesh of his stomach.
Outside again, he falls into the porch swing and removes a Marlboro pack from his shirt pocket. He smokes a cigarette and watches as thunderclouds approach. His leg aches and he winces against a gust of wind. When there is no more tobacco left, he flicks the butt into the yard and gets to his feet. The horse runs circles in the corral, warning of the approaching storm.
He walks around to the gate and climbs in between two wooden beams. His hat gets caught between them and falls, rolling in the wind.
The cowboy clicks for the animal and it pulls up, huffing dust and snot, those marble eyes blinking, searching. Taking it by the bridle, he guides the stallion to the center of the corral, whispering to it. It breathes on his neck and tries to nuzzle him, but he brushes its snout away.
Removing the gun from his belt, he draws back the hammer and places gun to head.
“Easy boy, easy.”
A crack. The clouds burst open and release their torrent. The gun’s hammer jams and the horse skitters away, frightened by the encroaching storm while the cowboy looks first to his pistol, yet another failure, and then for his hat before running to secure the horse and return him to his barn stall.