Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Fragile Circle

Stormy: March 11, 1983 – February 7, 2011.

It was the seventh sunrise of the Moon of the Dark Red Calves (Lakota Sioux Calendar). He had awoken at his customary four-thirty AM from a restless and troubled sleep. After making coffee and getting a fire started, he had settled into his chair and read scenes III – VI of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second. The forensic issues of the death of Edward II aroused his curiosity. Two hours passed and “rosy fingered dawn” caressed the snow covered expanse of Tejana Mesa and the sugarloaf summit of Mesa Tinaja.

Rosy Fingered Dawn

Far Rider shrugged into his chore coat and pulled on lined gloves. The thermometer showed eleven degrees – a big improvement over the minus thirty–nine degrees of the previous week that had caused so much grief for the scattered inhabitants of Catron County located in the rugged expanses of the far western reaches of New Mexico.

 Calling Caesar, he stepped out into the cold, clear air of a beautiful winter day crowned with an azure sky. Weather reports were calling for snow over the next two days beginning sometime after midnight, but the frozen ground assured there would be no benefit from the moisture. Since Christmas, the surrounding mesas and mountains had been covered with a solid blanket of white. There was some clearing on the flats and in the meadows but it was a respite that would soon be broken.

His four saddle horses were standing quietly in their corral and watching him as he picked up his apple picker and sledge hammer to start the first chore of winter days – breaking ice in the drinkers. Looking south towards the alley that separated the arena from the southern corrals and shelters, he could not see any of the three old, geriatric horses in their corral. His heart gave a small erratic thud as the shadow that had dogged him through the night quietly rustled its dark wings.

Stormy leading them home

Stormy, Handy, Stormy's nephew Stryker and his niece, Cimarron in the background

Far Rider leaned the sledge against the side of the frozen drinker and walked into the southeastern corral that provided shelter for the three oldest and crippled horses. Flaxie, the thirty-one year old sorrel mare stood looking absently at him with her tongue hanging out of her mouth. A more pronounced case of horseheimers he had never seen. But, the old girl was healthy, had a great appetite and loved to run with the younger horses out in the remote pastures during the day. We should be so happy. He seemed to recall that Virgil had noted something about the happiness of not knowing how blessed we might be. Handy, the aged appaloosa, stood just under the shelter roof soaking up the early rays of sunshine beginning to creep into the shadows of the covered shelter. Only the tips of the ears of his grand old horse Stormy showed above one of the Malibu walls dividing the shelter into individual stalls. Odd. He stepped into the corral and observed Stormy leaning against an eastern wall supporting himself and taking the weight off of his deformed and crippled left foreleg. As soon as the old horse saw him, his head came up and the huge, liquid eyes lighted and glistened in the early morning light. A fleeting darkness passed through Far Rider’s mind as the reality of what the day held flashed before him.


“Sonofabitch” he quietly swore as he turned away. Lisa would soon be down with the morning feed and would gently care for the old horse as she got him up to the feeder for his breakfast. Telling her it would be his final meal was going to be heartbreaking for them both. Far Rider returned to the drinker and attacked the ice savagely with the sledge as he steeled himself for the darkness of the day ahead.

Morning chores completed, knowing the day would be bitter and long, he ate a spare breakfast though he wasn’t hungry. From the small refrigerator in the saddle shed he retrieved vials of Acepromazine and Dermosedan and brought them into the house to warm them.

Returning to the saddle shed, he pulled his Marlin Model 1895 .357 caliber rifle from the saddle scabbard and made his way up to the Close Quarter Battle Range situated some 200 yards east of the horse facilities. Using a three inch by five inch index card from his pocket, he drew a one inch “X” on it and clamped it to a target frame about eight inches above the ground. Backing up three paces he dry fired on the card several times before levering a round into the chamber. Taking precise aim, he squeezed off the shot. The bullet impacted three quarters of an inch low using the fifty yard zero he had sighted the rifle in for. Using a hold over of three quarters of an inch, he fired three more rounds for effect. All three cut one small hole at the vector of the arms of the “X”.

He returned his rifle to the saddle shed and with a heavy heart walked down to Stormy’s corral. Handy, Stormy’s rangemate for over fifteen years, had already been turned out into the Stormy Pasture while the other horses had filed out to the Shiloh Pasture where Stormy’s sister was buried. Handy, waiting just outside the corral for his buddy nickered a greeting when he saw Far Rider approach.

Stormy: January 2011

Entering the corral, Far Rider retrieved the lead rope from the gate post and found Stormy again leaning against the eastern wall attempting to stay on his feet. Slipping the rope over his horse’s head, he gently and slowly coaxed the once powerful bay horse across the corral and into the pasture that had been named for him. After slipping the loop off Stormys head, Far Rider stroked and spoke softly to the horse that had been his faithful companion for a quarter century. Stormy nuzzled his face and hands with his strong upper lip and breathed deeply drinking in the scent of the man he had carried for so many miles and so many years across the plains, deserts and mountains of their beloved West. Far Riders eyes burned as tears of grief spilled unbidden and he hugged the shaggy neck for what he knew would soon be the last time.

The preceding day, Far Rider had made arrangements with his neighbor to bring a backhoe and dig a grave alongside Shiloh as the weather was soon going to turn and trying to dig a grave suitable for a horse in a snowstorm would make a difficult job maybe impossible. His neighbor had promised to drive his machine over sometime around one o’clock or so. It was strange how the premonition of the bitter duty that lay before him had strengthened over the past week or so. Walking the crippled horse across the corral and into the pasture he had known it would be Stormy’s last walk.

Far Rider brought fresh, rich alfalfa hay and laid it at Stormy’s feet. Handy and Stormy both began munching the hay in the relaxed companionship of old friends. Far Rider turned away, checked his watch and, saw that two hours were all that were left of a full and vibrant life.

He fought the ragged convulsions that made his chest heave as he walked back through the corrals towards the house. With his mind far away and the mantle of grief making him confused, he attended to minor chores as the hands of the clock crept past eleven-thirty. Just as he had known when he saw Stormy leaning against the wall early that morning, too soon he knew that it was time. He picked up the sedatives, syringes and needles nodding to Lisa as he left the house. She turned away sobbing. His last stop was the saddle shed where he retrieved his rifle.

When he returned to the pasture, Stormy was standing alone down in the arroyo sleepily taking the sun as his body teetered and swayed slightly as he struggled to stay on his feet. The left foreleg and the right rear leg were simply no longer up to the task of supporting him any longer. In the space of a day, he had gone from pain that was relieved by the administration of Dexamthazone injections and powdered Phenylbutazone in his feed to a condition of suffering. The price of the joy he had shared with the wonderful horse for twenty four years was now due and the final act of mercy for his faithful friend now fell to Far Rider.

He laid his rifle on a towel along with some baling twine and went up to his horse who greeted him with nuzzles and a desperate plea for relief that was reflected in the great brown eyes. Eyes, always so bright, now looked with sadness and a pleading to “help me now.” Placing his arms one last time around the winter-shaggy neck, Far Rider called upon the God of Abraham to take this, His wondrous creation to where he would find green pastures besides clear water. With the warm breath of his horse on his cheek, he also asked that if it was in His plan, that He would make it possible that they would once again someday be together in a place without such pain and terrible sadness.

Far Rider blew in Stormy’s nose and rubbed his upper gums with his fingertips – something that always gave the horse pleasure and commended his companion into the Hand’s of God.

The lessons hard learned as a Special Operations soldier in places where pain and death were so often dealt with and the similar lessons learned on the ugly streets of south Los Angeles while wearing LAPD blue took over. Grief was put aside, and the mechanics of efficiency and doing what had to be done guided his hands. Filling a syringe with five milliliters of Acepromazine, he quickly found the large vein running down the groove of the neck under the jaw and inserted the twenty gauge needle. Drawing back the syringe, it quickly flooded with bright blood and he pushed the plunger home. Within a few minutes, Stormy was completely relaxed with his head down nibbling at the snow. Far Rider administered another five milliliters of Ace and Storm turned towards him and after Far Rider had caressed his face one final time, the great horse lay down on the side of the arroyo. His breathing was deep and regular and he drifted to a place away from pain as the sky dimmed in the once lustrous eyes. Pulling two pre-loaded syringes of Dermosedan from his coat pocket, Far Rider pushed the chemicals into the blood stream of the now sleeping horse. He loaded the entire five millileter bottle of the same drug and pushed it home hoping it would be sufficient to stop the beating of Stormy’s great heart.

Sitting on the wet, snowy ground in sunshine that was surprisingly warm, Far Rider stroked his horse’s face and watched for his breathing to stop. Stormy began to snore quietly and Far Rider realized the drugs were not going to be enough to stop the mighty heart that continued to push life through the crippled body.

Wrapping the towel around his beloved horse’s head, he tied it in place with the hay baling twine. He placed a small mark on the towel over the center of the horse’s forehead and teetering somewhere between grief and rage, he picked up his rifle.

Within the hour, his neighbor made the grave alongside of Shiloh and put Stormy to rest there beside her. The frozen and muddy ground made for a difficult job and Far Rider thanked God for a neighbor such as Norm.

Authors Note:

During October of last year, I had come to the conclusion that it was time to put Stormy down. I was alone at the ranch and decided that it would be a good time so that the grief of such duty was not shared. I agonized over it for three days as Stormy got progressively worse with his leg seeming to bend further out each day. Mid-morning on the day I had decided I would need to kill my horse, I stepped onto the deck of the saddle shed and knelt down by one of the camp fire ring benches, removed my hat, and asked my God and Creator to please spare my horse for awhile longer.   

Stormy: October 2010

I am not one for asking God for anything for myself. My feeling is that most folks whine to God about every little thing that they ought to step up and take care of themselves. After all, He is God and He sure as hell knows what we need without our telling Him, nor does He need a lecture from the likes of us. I will ask Him for help for other folks and for guidance to save my country from those that would destroy it, and for the protection of our uniformed young men and women in harm’s way on distant shores.

I am hardly a “good” Christian, and asking God for personal favors seems hypocritical and dishonorable. But, I was all out of options and so was Stormy. Even in Viet Nam when facing what I thought were my final moments, I steadfastly refused to pray and ask for God’s assistance because I knew that if I survived, being of an imperfect nature and a son of Adam, that I would return to ignoring God until I needed Him again. Just didn’t seem right to be asking for help when I was not doing my share of following His commandments.

Later that morning, I decided to call my former veterinarian that had recently returned to this country from a move back east and was reestablishing his practice. Two years previously, the veterinarian I had called when Stormy’s sister Shiloh was dying in such agony had given me the sum total of help by saying “Good luck with your horse.” I am not a forgiving man and that is a debt as yet unresolved so I was not about to call that particular practitioner again.

I really did not think there was any hope for such a desperate orthopedic condition, but out of the blue, as I rose from my knees the thought came to me to call Dr. Jack D. Though he is 115 miles away, that is considered nearby in a county that is larger than some eastern states. He had always helped me out years earlier when he was still in this part of the country. He would take the time to talk me through things on the phone and I like his way of handling horses. We spoke about Stormy and he suggested I start him on injections of Dexamthazone. Within 3 days, Stormy was limping around the pasture albeit on a badly deformed leg but with a returned appetite. He would lie in the sun and manage to get back on his feet and his eyes were bright. It was the first time in my life that I felt God had answered a direct request for help. There was no flash of light or thunderclap, no burning bush. The answer arrived in the advice of an educated and trained veterinarian whom also has a profound faith in God as Creator of the magnificent creatures with whom we share this world.

God gave Stormy and I four more months together. Just knowing Stormy was in the corral or pasture made my life better and I thanked God every day for his mercy to Stormy and to me.

Stormy is in a better place now where he can run as he did when we first began our time together. Though a deep and utter sadness grips my heart this night, my life for 24 years was better and will always be better for having shared it with such a magnificent creature and faithful companion.

Upon hearing of the loss of Stormy, a dear friend that raises Rocky Mountain Horses nearby sent me the following beautiful words of comfort penned by poet Irving Townsend and from which the title of this essay is borrowed:

We who choose to surround ourselves with lives
even more temporary than our own
live within a fragile circle, easily
and often breached.
Unable to accept its awful gaps,
we would live no other way.
We cherish memory as the only certain immortality,
never fully understanding the necessary plan.

"The Once Again Prince"
Irving Townsend

See to your weapons and stand to your horses,
Far Rider


Rocky Woolman said...

What can I say??? Your story brought tears to my eyes as I recall putting Blakie down at the end of my Long ride. Only those who have gone through putting their own horse down can feel the reality of your story. It's good to have you back....writing, again. Your friend....
Col Rocky Woolman
US Army, Retired

Bill Stansbury said...

Typed words even those typed through hot watering eyes seem pretty weak in situations like this but my heart felt sorrow for you loss James. I thank God that I've never had to put a horse down God would probably frown but if I had to choose between most horses and most men in matters of death the men would come out second.

Bill Stansbury

Anonymous said...

Jo and I have just finishing tending to the details of my dad's death and are selling his house. We share your sorrow over losing so faithful a companion of so many years. Most people don't, can't understand. We miss spending time with Lisa and you and hope we can get together sometime soon. There is lots to discuss about our place in the future of this land and how best to accomplish all we can. All the way! Big John = Florence, AZ Terr. USA

Greg Wilburn said...

Dear James,

Thank you for sharing your story, on what is such a difficult day. I feel deeply for your loss. In the last 18 months our family has lost it's two alpha pets, one Chow, one Tabby. Both led full happy lives, but it is never easy. Hopefully some time soon we will meet. Troy speaks of you often. Thank you for your service and sacrifice.

Paul said...

Please accept,
My heart and sympathy along with my prayers for your grief and sacrifice, The love for our precious creature companions are never equal to anything else. Horses, Dogs and all 4 legged loved ones, love us unconditionally and help us in ways people could never even begin to try.
Your companions were loved by you and they new it. To put them down and ease their suffering was the most humane and caring thing you had to do.
I understand fully the hypocritical feeling of asking for God’s help when you feel He has more important things to worry about than your “selfish needs”. I don't have the answer, but I do know GOD made you and me, and he made your four legged friends, and needed you to be his instrument to help them come back to him.
With love and healing,
Semper Fi
Paul Fisher

Anonymous said...

I am very sorry for your loss. I have no doubt that you and Stormy will meet up again one day.

your friend,

akraven said...

Our critters become such a part of our lives that it is so tough to lose them. Remember all the good times you shared makes it somewhat easier to deal with. akraven

Anonymous said...

I read this with heartfelt sorrow and respect for the man you are and the courage you have to always do what is right, just and respectful, no matter how difficult

The "fragile circle" is a metaphor that illuminates the connectedness of all life on earth but especially the completeness of the relationships that humans choose to share with their animal partners. These relationships define us, support us, and feed our souls. Thereby making us the persons we are. We seek them out even though they often make our lives more difficult and painful.

The difficulty comes with the shorter lifespans of our companions and their frailties. We accept this and deal with the fragility over and over because we can't face a life without these relationships. Each relationship is special in its own way. Even so, our new partners in life never completely fill the void old partners leave behind. We hang on to them dearly so as not to loose that piece of us that gets torn away with their leaving. Those wounds heal slowly if painfully. I feel your pain. Sue