He’d burned the titles of his hit songs into the planks that formed the stall where he kept his favorite horse, a high-stepping Paso Fino of no particular value beyond the curiosity of its unusual four-gaited step. A short length of pine tacked on the half-door of the stall bore the horse’s name in brass letters, Dominus.
Colin looked about. The stalls and tack seemed unfamiliar. He took a deep breath and smelled sweet feed and hay mixed with the sharper scents of leather and manure.
“What the hell?”
A horse whinnied somewhere across the corral and Dominus stirred.
“Easy,” Colin said softly. He knew where he was.
“Did you write those words on the wall, Grandpa?” Chip said. The boy was Eddie’s son, Colin thought. Maybe nine or ten years old. He’d kept the children straight for a while, but his three sons and daughter kept on having more of them. It took him a while to learn their names. He lost track of their ages.
He only remembered Chip’s name when he paired it in his mind with Chip Herd who sang two lines in a song Colin had written when he was fourteen years old called Be My Baby. He sold all the rights to the song for eighty-five dollars and the damn thing turned out to be a hit for the Ronettes.
“Yep. I did it.”
“Well, I wanted to have a reminder of them. I can look at that wall any time I please and read the title of a song that meant a lot to me.” He did not think it would benefit the boy in any way to know that some charred wood and cloudy memories were just about all he had left of most of the songs.
“Are these all songs?”
“Sixty-one of them. I wrote them all and they are mostly about Grandma.” He’d written something like three hundred songs, but those memorialized in the stall had all been respectable performers and earned him a nice living for a while. Sixty pop hits over the course of nearly fifty years. Maybe not all big hits, but still not bad for a dumb country boy who couldn’t read music.
“I guess that was long time ago. Do you think it’s funny that I wrote songs about Grandma?”
But when he turned back to the boy, he was gone. He had wandered out of the stall and Colin heard him scrape a length of wood or a small tool across the outside wall. He laughed at himself. He really knew better than to try to interest his grandson in his own old emotional entanglements.
Colin leaned against the stall relieving some of the soreness in his back. He’d run cattle at one time, but he no longer looked like a cowboy. He’d lost weight over the past year because he often forgot to eat. His back was bent. The sharp angles of his face were blunted by the shadow of his Stetson’s wide brim.
He read all the titles on one set of planks. There were eleven songs, the wood charred and chipped in places, but the words were legible. This was Colin’s entire creative output in 1977 and 1978.
He tried to remember the words to “One Stolen Kiss”. He could almost see them as if printed on paper, but as he tried to adjust his view to bring the words into focus they broke apart and swam away in a sea of small scribbles. Ha! Some dipshit symbolism about his shattered life, he supposed. He couldn’t speak straight-forwardly about himself even when he was talking to himself.
He walked out of the barn looking for cooler air.
To the west he could make out some of the features of Trapper Peak through the August haze. Trapper Peak was the highest mountain in Montana’s Bitterroot Range. Gusts of wind stirred up dust in the barnyard. Some blew into his eyes causing him to squint. He fanned himself with his hat.
In summer, filled with wild strawberries and mountain bluebells, the vast grassland provided pasture for a small herd of mustangs, but he was too far away to see the horses. In the winter the Peak was cold and barren, the horses wintering somewhere below in a sheltered valley along the Bitterroot River.
He pulled the brim of his hat down to shield his eyes against the glare of reflected light and tried to make out a slight break along the forward edge of the mountain chain. Several miles beyond there was the beginning of a broken trail that would ultimately lead to the other side of the mountain range. Years before he’d made the journey with Dominus in about ten days. He remembered that the world was different on the other side of the mountain. I can do it again, he thought.
Eleven songs. Most of them were written in the solitude of long rides in those mountains and valleys, where he’d ridden for most of his life. He’d written most of his songs nearby, often on horseback, his guitar slung over his back and a pad of paper and stub of a pencil lashed to the saddle.
He’d hired Pepper Pot — God, what a name — to arrange the eleven songs to fit his notion of how they should sound before he lost control of them, and then he went to his agent with the charts and played and sang them all straight through.
“I waited two years for this. Who else has heard these songs?” Dick Westberg said.
“You got copies of those charts.”
“Well you can understand why I would ask. Who knows they exist?”
“Just you and me and Pepper.”
“Is she getting enough so she doesn’t think she has to rip you off?”
Colin was irritated by Westberg’s condescending questions, but he didn’t protest. He’d made plenty of boneheaded decisions.
“She’s not like my ex-wife. We have a deal.”
“Colin, are you nuts? Even I wouldn’t try to hold you up for fifteen percent. You should have talked to me first.”
“Money doesn’t matter to me. You know that.”
“I know you tell me that you don’t care about money, but that’s because you still get royalty checks. Talk to me in a couple of years when the royalties run out and let me know how contemptuous you are of money when you don’t have any.”
“I learned my lesson from Marj.”
“Her royalty checks are still ten time yours from the rights you gave her to all the rest of those songs.”
“I just meant that I have enough.”
“Do you have an idea about who you want to offer the songs to?”
“They’re pretty good, aren’t they?”
Westberg had laughed. “Yeah, they’re pretty good. You’ll be able to live off these for a while.”
Colin had always been prone to obsessive ruminations about the past, but lately old memories came to him in vivid hues of sharply defined color and associated feelings with an immediacy of the moment and the clarity of well-edited film. Once he had to coax the images into stories and melodies and it was slow going. Now the images were clear, but no longer coalesced into the image poems that turned into song lyrics and, although he listened intently, he heard no melodies.
Eager to clear his mind, he stood outside the barn on his son’s ranch and thought about throwing a saddle on Dominus and going for a ride. Eddie had extracted a promise from him that he would not ride alone after Colin had gone for a ride and had difficulty finding his way home. Colin felt fine. Still, occasionally, he felt a momentary flutter in his chest as a reminder of the brief panic he had experienced when he could not get his bearings. These trails, the entire mountain side, were familiar to him. He should not have gotten lost.
What the hell. He should be doing a lot of things, chief among them, preparing to return to his home in Missoula. But he still wanted to talk to Eddie and explain a few things that he feared he would not be able to do if he put if off to some indefinite future.
He was afraid he could no longer trust his own mind. He’d heard a song in his head that he had written down before he realized that it was something he had heard on the radio a while back rather than a composition of his own.
“Don’t break my heart,
My bruised and broken heart,
But please just try to understand
Something like that.
He stood quietly, his eyes on the distant hills, momentarily uncertain about what he wanted to do.
“Chip,” he called.
The boy peeked around the rear corner of the barn and Colin signaled him to come closer.
“I need help saddling Dominus.”
Chip grinned. “Can I ride him?
“Not today. I need him myself. But if you give me a hand we can go riding tomorrow. Deal?”
Colin allowed Chip to lead Dominus from his stall and watched while he tied him to a short horizontal bar with a slip knot. He was pretty sure he’d taught Chip to do that.
He watched the boy run a grooming brush over the horse’s back. It wasn’t necessary because he always kept Dominus groomed, but this was also something he had taught all his children to do. Brush your horse, examine his coat and skin for injuries. Do it every time you put on the saddle.
“Put the saddle blanket on him just behind his withers.”
“Grandpa, I know how to do it.”
“Can you lift the saddle?”
“It’s pretty heavy.”
“I’ll give you a hand. Then you cinch him up nice and tight while I go talk to your Dad.”
“Can I ride him just a little bit here in the yard?”
Colin loved to see the sparkle of delight in the boy’s eyes.
“Can you mount him yourself?”
“I can do it.”
“Then you can ride him. But just around here in front of the barn.”
Colin walked across the barn yard and another fifty yards beyond to the house. He had so much to pass along to Eddie that he trembled at the thought of messing this up. He had to remember to avoid too many side roads. He’d start on one thing and wind up talking about something else. He’d lose Eddie fast if he did that.
Eddie waited for him outside the back door.
“I saw you coming across the yard.”
Eddie was his oldest son. For a reason Colin could not pin down, he felt closest to his ex-wife when he was with Eddie even though it was his daughter who looked so much like her mother. Just another thing that made no sense, but still felt right.
He’d written a song titled “I think I loved You Before I Met You” that made no sense either, but it sounded right set to music and sold over a million copies for Tommy Jakes and his band.
“Let’s go for a ride. I want to talk to you.”
“Whoa. Wait a minute. I’ve got a lot to do.”
“This is more important.” Colin felt his agitation increase. He rocked back and forth on his feet. “What are you looking at?” Damn. His nervousness angered him. He just wanted to talk to his son.
Eddie stood nearly a half foot taller than Colin. His fine-boned features seemed out of place on his husky rugged frame. He smiled easily.
“We don’t have to go for a ride just to talk to each other.”
“I got a lot to say.” Colin felt his son’s appraising look.
“Okay. Stay cool. How about you come with me while I saddle Cory Bell and you can get started talking.”
They walked toward the barn.
Colin struggled to remember what the hell it was that he wanted to say to Eddie.
“Did I ever tell you about the time your Uncle Ted and I went over to Weaverville looking to get drunk and start a fight, but I met your Mom instead?”
“I believe you mentioned it a few times.” Eddie sat down on a bale of hay. “Take a load off.”
Colin sat across from his oldest son. The baled hay was fresh and still carried a lingering scent of alfalfa. Dust tickled his nose. The familiar taste and smell filled the back of his throat. He felt the urgency of the moment bubble up inside of him. “I know you get impatient with me, but I’ve lived a lot years and I’ve made plenty of mistakes that have caused hurt for other people and me. I want to tell you about it so you can learn from my mistakes.”
Colin’s eyes filled with tears as feelings of imminent loss and helplessness overwhelmed him.
“Dad, that’s a good idea. Do you remember ever telling me before?”
Colin was puzzled. “Maybe a long time ago.”
“No, Dad. I mean today.”
“We didn’t talk today.”
“We did. At breakfast and later when we tried to fix the water pump. Do you remember that?
“The water pump? Sure.
”How about yesterday?”
Colin tried to remember yesterday.
“We were in the kitchen.”
“Maybe.” Eddie was right. He remembered talking in the kitchen yesterday. He had started to tell Eddy about his life. “I’ll feel better when I’m home in Missoula in my own place.”
“Dad, that was a long time ago. You live here with us on the ranch.”
“Going on three years.”
“I must have forgotten.”
“Do you remember talking to Dr. Armin?”
“Not yesterday. A while back.”
“Is that the heart doctor?”
“No. Dr. Armin is a psychologist.”
Colin felt relief when the image of a woman flashed through his mind. “Sure. A woman, right? I remember her.”
For a moment neither man said anything. Colin tried to focus his attention on Dr. Armin. He tried to remember her face.
“I screwed up a lot with your mom. I didn’t do so good as a father for you or the others. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
“I know. You tell me almost every day. But then you forget we had the conversation. Dr. Armin helped you understand why you are doing that.”
Colin had a sudden vivid memory of a conversation with Marj.
“I remember. It wasn’t that other woman, it was your Mom.”
“Mom isn’t here.”
Colin knew he had spoken to her recently.
“Where is she?”
“She’s not here, Dad.”
“No, that’s not right. Marj said I repeated the same old stories to remind myself of what happened. Is that right?”
“Yes, you’re right, but Dr. Armin told you that.”
“Not to teach you, but to help me stay connected to my own life. What’s wrong with me? Sometimes…”
Colin shook his head. He looked at the bright day outside the barn. Someone was riding a horse.
“Do you know that I used to write songs?” Colin felt some of his agitation begin to fade. He remembered talking about this with Eddie before.
Colin recognized the horse the boy was riding. It was his horse, Dominus. The Paso Fino’s high-stepping staccato gait gave an impression of delicacy and vulnerability, but Dominus was an old war-horse on the trail. Harder than the rocks they traversed in their journeys. Hard as nails. Tough. Rhymes with rough.
That was it. It was important to be strong. He never gave up.
“Do you feel a little better now?” Eddie said.
Colin studied his son’s face, trying to picture what his other children looked like. There was the girl…
“Are we going for a ride?”
“If you want to.”
Colin stood and walked to the barn door. “Let’s take the boy,” he said.
Mounted on Dominus with his son and grandson at his side, he looked up again at the distant peaks. He studied the notch in the rock that would give him his bearings. He’d set out tomorrow on foot. He’d leave early so Eddie could not interfere with his plan.
He felt a terrible ache at the thought of leaving Dominus behind, but it would have to be.
Banner Image: By Dwight Burdette (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons