The Winterist

Owen O’Keefe felt a cold coming on—scratchy throat, stuffy nose, dull ache behind the eyes. He would have stayed in bed an extra hour, but he had no time for sickness. Mrs. Raleigh had called a little after 6:00 a.m., saying her miniature horse was dying.

“Would you come out and put her down?”

“I will,” he said. “Of course I will.”

Although he had sold his veterinary practice years ago, he worked when he was called upon to ease the suffering of client and creature. At eighty-four, he’d retained a handful of devotees, Mrs. Raleigh among them. He hung up the phone, got out of bed, turned on the lights, and checked the thermometer his son had installed beside the kitchen window—one of those little plastic jobs you could tilt toward you, so you didn’t have to pull on your boots and go outside to verify you were freezing.

Twenty-nine degrees. Dark as night. The whole town sheeted in white. Icicles hung in two-foot spears from the edges of the roof.

Owen had lived beneath the Bighorn Mountains his entire life, although his son Conrad now owned the ranch house he himself had purchased before his boys were born. Owen no longer had use of a four-bedroom house, or ten acres, or horses, or hay, or the unending heartburn that went with the upkeep even the smallest ranch required. Here, in his two-bedroom abode—he called it his cottage—his landlord handled all that.

Peering out the window, his warm breath fogging the warped panes of glass, he knew that in addition to snow there’d be ice, and Owen hated ice. Walking the path to the pond where his son flew his falcon could be treacherous, and he couldn’t afford to fall; a broken hip would land him in the hospital, and he hadn’t the stomach for accusatory whispering in the too-bright halls, the looks the nurses gave you. He remembered well their condemnation after Ethan had died. Ethan was his eldest boy, besting Conrad by two years.

When he himself was young—in the throes of running his clinic—he had put his work before all else, and if it happened he had two hours to spare, he gave them to his horses. The realization that Ethan would be off to college soon came late to Owen, and so he began paying attention to his sons in ways he hadn’t before, spending real time with them. The mea culpa had done Ethan little good, however, but had paid off with his youngest. After all these years, Conrad still wanted his dad to walk next to his side while he flew his peregrine falcon.

Owen wanted that too and looked forward to it, but his mind now was on his task at Mrs. Raleigh’s house. The job would be difficult, as these cases often were. He thought of what he might say to comfort the woman and practiced aloud an ode to horses—author unknown—that he’d memorized as a youngster: Feed me, water me, and care for me, and when the day’s work is done, provide me with a clean, dry bed and a nice wide stall. Be always gentle to me.

As he rehearsed these words, he drifted slightly into the opposite lane and then slowly back again. He had driven the roads of Levon’s winters since he was fifteen years old, his father’s old truck gliding along the pale arms of ice-covered highways like a sled on the mountain. In those days he didn’t worry about ice; his reflexes were quick, his forearms strong. But in later years he had, on one occasion, mistaken black ice for wet pavement, and it had nearly cost him. He had been on his way home from a symposium in Billings, driving south to Wyoming, when his pickup spun out and began to slide backward. He took his foot off the accelerator, letting the vehicle take him where it wanted to go, knowing the trek might kill him. But the truck gradually righted and he had lived, getting home in time for the pork chops and biscuits his wife, Maura, had made, and for watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. His sons had lain on the carpet in front of the TV, chins propped on folded fists. He had believed, back then, that his family was safe—would always be safe—and he had relished the comfort that faith provided. How incredibly naive he’d been.

Mrs. Raleigh’s spread lay on the outskirts of Levon. Cottonwoods lined the lane to her house, the few twisted leaves still clinging to branches dried and faded to brown. The woman met him in the driveway wearing rubber boots and a wool plaid jacket, hands plunged into its pockets.

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