Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Old Criley Part 1

I smelled the horseflesh, hay, and manure on the afternoon breeze as soon as I jumped out of my old, blue Ford.  I stared at the foothills looming behind the postcard-pretty ranch. Most ranches don't look like what you see in the movies, but this one might have been the set of the last episode of Heartland.  
I watch entirely too much Netflix.

I removed my sunglasses and scanned the horizon, frowning. My pit bull puppy, Trip, trotted around, sniffing eagerly through the grass and tripping on his over-sized paws.

“Sam Guerin?”

I turned to see a middle-aged cowboy striding towards me, flanked by a woman his age and an elderly man wearing a straw cowboy hat and well-worn boots.

The cowboy stopped in front of me, hand extended. A stiff smile froze on his face, but I could feel his eyes taking in my silver gauged earrings, my arms inked to the elbow, and my mess of dark hair.  I was used to being judged for my appearance.  I wore my mistakes on my body for all the world to see, and that was my choice.  I wanted people to know exactly what they were getting, and that I was no longer hiding anything, but I also ran the risk of being rejected based on my looks.  I deserved that and I accepted that, even if I was no longer that person.

It did bug me a little, though.

“Mr. Michaelson,” I said, taking the cowboy's hand and flicking my bangs from my green eyes. “It's nice to meet you.”

“Your father speaks very highly of you,” Mr. Michaelson said in a tone that suggested doubt. A few months ago, his doubt would be warranted, but Dad and I buried the hatchet.  Mr. Michaelson eyed me, then Trip, and gestured to the woman and elderly man with him.  “My wife, Suzanne, and my ranch foreman, Sam Criley.”

Suzanne took my hand in her small, delicate one and smiled. Criley stared at me with bright, faded blue eyes before turning his head and spitting a wad of tobacco into the grass.

I liked him immediately.  More so since we shared the same first name.

“Thanks for letting me stay,” I said. The old cowboy glared at me, unsmiling, but he didn't intimidate me. “It's only for a night. I'll be out of your hair by morning.”

“No problem,” Mr. Michaelson said. “This your dog?”

“Trip. He won't be any trouble.”

“Your father said you're traveling south?” Mr. Michaelson asked.

“Colorado,” I said. “I can't exactly put my horse up at any hotels.”

Mr. Michaelson turned to Criley. “Criley, take the horse to the barn and get him set up for the night.”

“Her,” I said as Criley headed to the back of the horse trailer hitched to my truck. “Her name is Promise.”

“Come on up to the house for some dinner,” Suzanne said, reaching out to me. “Then we'll get you settled in the guest room.”

I glanced back as Trip and I followed the Michaelsons up to the ranch house. Criley was patting my little bay mare fondly on her neck, and she nuzzled his shoulder. The old cowboy's slivered face relaxed into a smile as he stroked the white star between Promise's eyes.  I smiled to myself and headed for the house.

After a shower and dinner, I decided to go out to the barn and check on Promise. A bite in the night air promised a frost, so Criley had brought all six of the Michaelsons' horses in for the night. I heard Promise's distinct whinny as soon as I stepped into the stable. A row of horse heads bobbed over the half stall doors as I walked down the corridor of the stable, each nose begging for a scratch. I patted nose after nose until I got to Promise's room for the night at the very end of the stable. I reached up to scratch her between her ears, and offered her a handful of carrots pilfered from Suzanne's kitchen. Promise crunched her treats happily, slobbering drool down the front of my T-shirt.

A coal-black horse in the stall beside Promise snorted and stuck her head over the stall door, nodding at me. I reached out to pat her soft nose and offered her some carrots as well. She gobbled them up quickly and snuffled against my palm with her soft lips, asking for more.

“Hey, you're a looker,” I said, running my fingers through the black strands of her mane.

The horse snorted and poked me with her muzzle.

“And a beggar,” I said with a laugh.

“That's Lady Guinevere.”  A voice startled me out of my own thoughts. I spun around to see old Criley holding a pitchfork. “Miss Anna's show horse.”

I patted the black horse's satiny neck. “She's beautiful,”

“Three time national champion in juvenile western show,” Criley said. “The young miss has been showing since she was ten.”

From what I could tell at dinner through the blushes and giggles, "Miss Anna" was now about sixteen. Beautiful, but definitely jailbait. I was civil, but kept my distance. I'd had enough trouble with the law to last a lifetime, and more than enough trouble with women.

“Prefer the horses do you?” Old Criley asked as he rubbed Lady Guinevere's ears. “The horses to the young ladies.”

I grinned. “Wasn't always that way,” 

Old Criley stared at me with his shrewd eyes. “Safer that way, though."

"True," I said.  "But I wasn't always into safe, either."

"Something happened to you,” he said. “Something devastating.”

I shrugged. “Promise isn't really my horse.  She belongs to my girlfriend.”

“And where's your girlfriend?”

“Dead.”

Old Criley nodded. “A hurt like that makes it hard to attach yourself to people. The animals are easier.”

No argument here, I thought. My most constant companions of late were Promise, Trip, and my crazy cat, Strumpet.

“Well, have a good night, young man.” Old Criley turned and strode off, whistling softly under his breath.  I watched him go before turning back to the horses, giving them a final scratch and treat.

Back in the house I approached Suzanne Michaelson as she cleaned up the kitchen.

“Need help?” I asked.

Suzanne looked up smiling.  “Can you dry dishes?”

“Sure can.”

Suzanne tossed me a dish towel and I dried as she washed.

“What's the deal with Old Criley?” I asked.

Suzanne paused in her dish washing. “Did he say something to you?”

“He seemed to know more about me than I let on to most people.  And we just met."

“He does that,” Suzanne said. “He can read people. He can read animals better, but he has a way of looking into your soul. He's been Henry's oldest and most loyal employee. The horses have the best care, and none of the other ranch hands give us any trouble when he's overseeing. When the girls were young we'd leave them in his care when we wanted to go out for a night or even for a weekend. We trust him with our horses' lives, and our children's.”

I nodded as I picked up a plate to dry.

“He doesn't have much of a life outside the ranch," Suzanne continued.   "No children of his own, no wife. Prefers the animals."  She handed me the last plate to dry.  "I do know that he used to drink a lot. When he was in his early twenties, he worked as a ranch hand for another ranch. He and several of his friends decided to have a party in the barn. They drank too much, probably got high, and someone started a fire with a lit a cigarette. Three of the kids died in the fire including Criley's girlfriend, and all the horses in the barn at the time. I think four. The firefighters managed to get him and the other three kids out, but no one could save the horses.”

“That's awful," I said. I knew all too well the consequences of drinking and getting high.

“Well, he never drank again,” Suzanne said. “He's been sober as long as he's worked for us, about twenty years.”

It hit me that Criley could be me in forty years – a recluse who kept to himself and preferred the company of animals. I, however, had my own reasons for preferring solitude, and it wasn't because of death.


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