"There ain't no bear in that bush," I said. Negrito's ears were pricked so far forward they almost touched, and he was picking up his feet like he was walking on eggshells.
"You've never even seen a bear, you dumb horse," I told him, keeping a strong leg on him. "You don't even know what one looks like."
Negrito blew through his nose, rolling one eye toward the bush.
I laughed. Negrito had a good imagination.
A sudden gust of wind rustled the bush and Negrito gave a snort and a huge sideways leap and tried to take off. I kept him back long enough to let him know it was my idea to gallop, then we went. The drumming of his hooves was better than music.
"There's a ditch coming up, man," I said. I could tell by the way he was holding his head up that he saw it.
"Do you want to jump it or not?"
I felt him weave a little, so I leaned back and pushed, tightening my leg. "Sure you do."
We soared over the ditch without breaking stride, but once we landed, he bobbed his head and bucked a little.
"Boy, that was fun! You're a great jumper. A really great jumper," I said, slapping his neck with the reins. "Next year we make the Olympics."
Then, worried that I sounded too sarcastic, I added, "For a cow horse you are a really good jumper."
We loped on. This was the first day I could really feel fall coming on, not so much because it was chilly, but there was a slant to the sunlight and a smell in the air that meant fall.
Pop ought to be coming home pretty soon. Summer, shoot, there were lots of rodeos going on, lots of places he could be all summer, but fall would be a really good time for him to come home.
Negrito jumped sideways and started bucking again.
"Geez, it's a rabbit. For Pete's sake, don't you know a rabbit when you see one?"
Negrito shook his head. I got him collected till he was bunched up like a coiled spring and his canter felt like a rocking chair.
He was just playing around. He was a pretty brave horse, actually. Fall always made him feel good. Besides that I hadn't ridden him for a while. My best friend, Johnny Collins, got a motorcycle for his birthday a month ago, and I'd been spending a lot of time dirt-biking with him.
I slowed Negrito down to a walk to cool him off. I had to get back and change clothes before I went to school, and I couldn't leave him hot. He kept breaking into a jog trot. Fall mornings he could go forever.
"I've been wasting a lot of time with that cycle," I said, while I was unsaddling him. "But it was new and everything and Johnny kept pestering me to go with him, but we'll go out for rides more."
Negrito turned and nipped at me. Sometimes he meant it, but mostly he'd just catch my sleeve or my jacket. I slipped the bridle over his ears. He almost knocked me down trying to scratch his head on my arm. The bit always made his mouth itch.
"Seeya later." I swung over the fence. Negrito stood there, waiting.
"Okay." I pulled the last piece of carrot out of my pocket and gave it to him. Then I just walked off because I never could convince him that I didn't have any more carrots.
Across the paddock my brother Mason's horse, Red, stood swishing flies, looking bored out of his mind. Mason had never treated him like a person, so Red had never acted like one. Mason was a pretty good rider, though. Not as good as me. Even Pop admitted that. A couple of years ago, when me and. Mason did junior rodeos a lot, I always won more.
I barely had time to change my clothes before Johnny drove up on his cycle. It was a lot better way to get to school on than the bus. Mason always left early for school, so I hardly ever could catch a ride with him.
I hopped on the cycle. Riding double was against the law, since neither one of us was sixteen, but you know, that was kind of a dumb law. I don't go around trying to break laws, but I couldn't get real worried about that one.
It was one of those long days at school. When it was over, I met Johnny.
"Straight home today," I told him.
"Aw, come on, Tex, I was going to go to the gravel pits today."
"No way, man. This is a perfect day for horse riding."
"Listen, man, I'll let you drive." Johnny tried bribing me.
"Well, hang on." Johnny did a wheelie leaving the school grounds, and the principal saw him do it. I knew we'd both get sent to the office tomorrow. I get sent to the office quite a bit. Even more than Johnny.
"You can't do a wheelie on a horse," Johnny shouted over the engine.
"That's true," I yelled back. He was right there. You can teach a horse to rear up, but that is the worst dumb trick you can teach a horse. Lord knows enough of them come up with it on their own. One quick way to get killed is having a rearing horse come down backward on top of you.
"Hang on, I'm going to jump the ditch!" Johnny shouted. I tightened my grip on his belt. The cycle flew through the air, bounded, skidded, and slid to a sideways stop in front of our house. I swung off the back end.
"Thanks for the ride."
Johnny took off his helmet to wipe the sweat off his freckles. Everybody else in his family was either real dark like their mother or real blonde like their father, and there Johnny sat, flame-haired as a match stick. He always said he was a throwback. A throwback is like when you breed a chestnut to a black and get an Albino colt like its great grandfather. I read a book once where that happened. All the Collins had dark blue eyes, though. It was their trademark.
"You sure you don't want to go to the pits with me?"
"Not today. All I want to hear on a day like this is hoof beats. Negrito is going to love a good run."
"Now just who is your best friend--me or that horse?"
I looked at him for a minute, thinking about it "Well, let me see ... I've known you both about the same amount of time..."
Johnny belted me in the stomach with his helmet. "Hey," he said suddenly, "what's Mason doing home?"
I looked at our beat-up pickup sitting in the driveway.
"Huh. Maybe he decided not to practice today. It's a little while till the basketball season's really going, anyway."
"But him and Bob were meeting every afternoon to shoot baskets."
"He's probably out jogging. Mace ain't making a move that doesn't have basketball behind it."
"Shoot," said Johnny. "If I could get the city paper to come out and take pictures of me, I might give up this machine and jog myself."
"Wouldn't do you any good. The coaches won't take midgets."
Johnny rapped me with the helmet again, but he wasn't mad. If he minded about being short I wouldn't tease him about it, but nothing much bothered Johnny. I'm the same way.
"You ought to see our room," I said. "Ol' Mason has the walls papered with that picture. Come on in and have a Kool-Aid."
Johnny shook his head. "I want to get some biking in before I have to go home. I'm trying to keep it down to just an hour late. Cole's started making noises about taking my cycle keys away."
All the Collins kids called their parents by their first names. They were the only kids I knew who did that. Johnny put his helmet back on. "Seeya, Texas."
He popped another wheelie going across the yard.
"Way to go!" I hollered after him. I went on in the house to change jeans before I went riding. I kept my jeans sorted by clean, sort of dirty, and real dirty. It saved trips to the laundry. The ones I had on could go a couple of days as sort of dirty, so I needed some real dirty ones to ride in.
"Mace? You home?" I yelled from the bedroom. The whole house was quiet.
The next place I headed was the kitchen. We have a real little house, white wood frame, a front room with one bedroom on the side, a kitchen right behind the front room. The bathroom is through the bedroom. There's an attic bedroom upstairs, but it's so hot in the summer and cold in the winter that Pop never uses it when he's here, but puts a sleeping bag on the living-room sofa.
I was hunting through the icebox for something to eat, when I saw something just out of the corner of my eye. I almost jumped halfway across the room. Turned out it was just Mason, sitting quiet in the corner, behind the table.
"Boy, you sure spooked me. What you doin' there?'
"What does it look like?" Mason is a pretty sarcastic person. I don't pay any attention. That's just the way he is. He sounds meaner than he is.
"We got anything to eat?"
"There's some baloney left."
I found the baloney and a jar with some mustard left in it and pulled a chair around to face him. "What you doin' home so early?"
"I cut school today."
I stopped scraping the mustard jar, astounded. "You kiddin'! Mr. Super Study cuttin' school? I guess that makes it okay for me to skip a day."
"I guess it don't." Mason is seventeen, a couple a three years older than me. Most of the time he seems even older than that. He's got into the habit of bossing me around. I don't know where he gets that. Pop never bosses us around. I just let Mason rattle on and don't pay much attention. That's just the way he is. He's always hollering or preaching about something.
"You go fishing?" I asked. Mason loves to go fishing. That's about the only time he unwinds. He didn't have much time for it anymore.
"No. I didn't go fishing." He was looking real strange, sitting there behind that table. He was too quiet. Neither one of us is quiet people.
"I thought I told you to stay off of Johnny's cycle." He didn't have any expression in his voice.
"No you didn't. You said I'd get myself killed ridin' Johnny's cycle. You didn't say to keep off it."
"Do I have to write everything down in letters three feet high and shove it under your nose? I wouldn't ride in a car if Johnny Collins was driving."
Now see, Mace says stuff like that he don't mean. He liked Johnny all right. Johnny's older brother Bob was Mason's best buddy. Even their sister Jamie thought of us as a couple of extra brothers, even though she already had four. He knew I'd been riding with Johnny ever since he got the bike. He just decided now would be a good time to fuss about it. I just went on spreading mustard on the baloney and eating it. We were out of bread.
"We get any mail?" I set the empty mustard jar down on the table.
"Who'd be writing to us?"
"He never writes."
"Sure he does. We got a card not too long ago."
"Four months ago."
"Yeah? It don't seem that long ago. He's only been gone five. I guess he'll be coming home pretty soon now that the rodeos are mostly over. Maybe I'll go with him next year."
"I wouldn't count on any invitations, if I were you," Mason said distinctly. It was true Pop never had asked us to go along, but shoot, maybe he would, next year.
I looked at Mason again. Something about the way he was sitting there made me think he'd been like that for hours, just sitting and staring.
"It sure is cold in here." I was beginning to wish I'd left my jacket on.
"A guy came out and turned off the heat this morning. I haven't paid the gas bill lately."
"No kiddin'? Why not?"
Mason just looked at me like I was the dumbest thing on earth.
"We run out of money?" I asked. "What happened to all that money we made last summer?"
Mason gave me a real mean look, almost like he hated me. It gave me a jab in the gut, even though I was pretty sure he didn't mean it.
"I blew it all in my fun-filled week at Acapulco. Where do you think it went? Food, gas, clothes. How far do you think a couple of hundred bucks stretches? Maybe if you took paying customers instead of mowing lawns for free..."
I ignored that. I only did a couple of lawns for free and everybody else paid me--Mason likes to make a big deal out of little things. I've just learned to live with it.
"Well, what we doing about it?" I asked him.
"We," he said, more sarcastic than ever, "have already taken care of it. The heat will be back on tomorrow. We don't have to worry about it anymore."
When Pop was gone Mason took care of all the bills and business stuff. I didn't know nothing about them. He did. I never thought it bothered him. He was the kind of person who liked to run things, anyway.
I decided to change the subject. Talking about money always got Mace irritated. He hates being poor.
"I heard you broke up with Laurie."
Mason was a very private person. He was a fanatic about keeping his personal life personal. Unfortunately you can't be the school basketball ace and keep your personal life personal. I figured if the whole school knew something, there wasn't any reason why I had to play ignorant.
"She was getting too serious. Talking marriage."
"Yeah? Scared you off, huh? You'll end up married one of these days, though."
"Not in the near future. Anyway it's none of your business."
"Boy, somebody sure put a burr under your blanket! Anyway Lem Peters says bein' married ain't so bad once you get used to it."
I wouldn't mind Mason getting married, to tell the truth. At least that'd take his mind off college. That was all he thought about, college and how to get there. Unless Pop came home, I wasn't too crazy about him going off to college and leaving me here by myself.
"Lem Peters better like being married. He's going to be stuck with it for a while."
"Just because you have to do something don't mean you can't like it, too. You know he wanted to get married besides having to." I glanced at the clock. "I better go get the horses rounded up. It's goin' to be too dark to ride pretty soon. Anyway if they ain't fed on time they'll be tearing the fence down."
I was halfway to the kitchen door when Mace said, "They ain't there."
"Yeah?" I said "Where are they?" I thought maybe he had turned them loose in the next pasture, even though since Cole Collins was leasing it for his cows we weren't supposed to keep the horses in it. We'd been running low on hay lately, though, with most of the grass in the half-acre paddock gone.
"I sold them," Mason said. I just kept looking at him, waiting for the punch line. I knew he didn't sell Negrito.
"No, you didn't," I said finally. He was lying or kidding or crazy. I was getting a sick cold feeling.
"Yeah, I did. Got a good price for them, too."
I didn't believe him. He couldn't sell Negrito any more than he could sell me. But just to make sure I ran out the back door, jumped down the back steps, and raced out to the barn. It was just a little lean-to, really. It'd been part of a barn once, but the rest of it had kind of fallen apart.
If I was ever late feeding the horses, they'd start trotting up and down the fence, nickering. Nothing made Negrito madder than being fed late. He'd pace the fence, his head getting lower and lower till his nose would be practically dragging on the ground, then when he saw me he'd paw and stamp and say, "Where the hell have you been?" He had a real thing about his food.
Neither horse was in sight. I whistled. Nobody answered. I ran up the little hill that led to the Collins' big pasture. Even across thirty acres I can tell horses from cows. They weren't in the pasture.
I felt really strange, like I'd swallowed a block of ice and it was just
sitting in my gut, sending cold waves all over me. My head felt spacy, almost like it was going to go floating off my body. I walked back to the house. I was breathing funny. I couldn't get enough air.
"Mace," I said. He still sat behind the table, like he hadn't moved a muscle since I left, and he didn't even blink now. I gave him one last chance. "Where's them horses?"
"I told you I sold them. I don't know why you'd think I'd start lying to you this late in life. Don't you ever close doors? No wonder I can't pay the gas bill."
"Who'd you sell them to?"
"I won't tell you. Nobody you'd know, anyway. They've got good homes. I made sure of that. They're gone. Shut up about it."
I was walking around and around in circles. I couldn't think. I couldn't breathe. I started shaking and sweating like a horse being reined in and spurred at the same time.
"Mason!" My voice shot up a note or two. "You better get those horses back! I mean it, man!"
Mason just sat there and didn't move. It was like seeing a stranger wearing a mask of my brother.
"I ain't gettin' them back." He spoke softly, his teeth clenched. "They're gone and they're gonna stay gone. We couldn't feed them through the winter. I wasn't going to watch them starve to death. So just shut up."
"You better get those horses back!" I shouted. I picked up one of the jelly jars we used for glasses and slammed it against the wall. Mason jumped a little when it shattered, like he hadn't expected it to break. I couldn't stop moving. I grabbed the mustard jar and hurled it at the window. It crashed through the glass and knocked the screen loose.
"Texas," Mason said, "you better quit it."
"I WANT THOSE HORSES BACK!" I grabbed another jar and smashed it into the sink, breaking a few dirty dishes.
Mason shoved the table out of the way and came charging across the room. My mind went into a white-hot blank and I went crazy.
All I wanted to do was kill him. And even though I was landing a few punches, I didn't seem to be hurting him, which made me madder. We rolled on the floor, through broken glass. I was out to get him any way I could, biting, kicking, screaming, and cussing. He got me pinned by one shoulder and slammed his fist into my face. It was like getting kicked in the head by a horse. I couldn't see for the yellow sparklers in my head, and he let me have another one. For the first time I realized he was as mad as I was and crazy enough to kill me. I blocked the next punch with my arm and turned my head quick as a snake and bit into his other arm. I set my jaw and wouldn't turn loose.