92. THINK ZEBRAS, NOT HORSES
"Daddy, can I have a zebwa?"
I laid down my pen and turned, swiveling my office chair to look at my little girl.
She was standing there looking all ruffly and girly and big-eyed innocent, and I knew why she asked me about a zebwa.
I mean zebra.
I know Old Pale Eyes had his little girl on a horse as soon as he adopted her.
I know my namesake had his Angela in saddle leather just as soon as he possibly could, and his green-eyed wife Esther, not wanting the Old Man's bad habits to kill their newly-adopted daughter, immediately took over training the pretty little girl how to ride.
I know Angela would jump her horse (which was quite against her Mama's red-headed wishes) over fences, gulches and anything she possibly could, including a schoolmate, which led to what we'll politely call a misunderstanding, but that's discussed in one of the Sheriff's journals and I don't want to plow that ground a second time.
Let's just say that my beautiful bride allowed as our little girl should learn to ride, and I agreed, and Dixie didn't want to ride a horsie, she wanted a zebwa.
I mean a zebra.
I looked at my girly little girl, looking all sweet and little-girlish with a big ribbon bow in her hair, in a knee length frock with rufflies along the hem, with her shiny patent leather slippers and ruffly top anklets, and I could almost hear my spine going snap, crackle, pop as I got wound tighter and tighter around her little finger, and I reached out and took both her little hands in both my big Daddy-hands and I said "Let's look for a saddle-mount for you tonight, shall we?"
Her eyes were naturally big and liquid -- she got that from her Mama, my beautiful bride has deep eyes, dark eyes, eyes that sparkle, eyes I could swim in ... I blinked, smiled, stood.
"I know a man that has some horses."
Dixie bounced a little on her toes, then she blinked and said "I need to change clothes," and she turned and scampered up the broad stairs.
I took a long breath, looked at Mama's framed portrait hanging over my roll top desk.
"Mama," said I, "you'll have to help me with this one," and my wife molded herself to my backside, hugging me from behind: I felt her lay her cheek bone against my back bone and I heard her sigh, "She will, you know," and The Bear Killer raised his head and rumbled approval.
I had no more than got to the front door, got my gunbelt slung back around my middle and shrugged into my Carhartt, than Dixie came thundering down the stairs, as noisy as any little boy: she ran a hand around the end post and swung hard about, not losing her footing but coming close, and I went to one knee, fast, and caught her as she ran full-bore into me, laughing.
I picked her up and kissed her on the side of the neck and said "I'll need your help on this," and she nodded solemnly, and I reached up with my free hand and lifted her little Stetson off its peg.
Her hat hung beside mine.
Where my Stetson was plain black felt, with a plain, black-leather band, hers was a light tan, but it had a silver mounted turquoise hat band made of real silver and real turquoise, and most folks would swallow their dentures to know how much that hat band cost.
I know nobody ever tried to steal it, probably because her Daddy is Sheriff, and because the only soul to lay a hand on my little girl found himself on the ground with a pretty bad headache: when a stranger seizes my daughter by the arm and hauls her toward a pickup truck with the door open, my first inclination is to drive a hard cast .44 through his left ear.
As it was, I taken three long strides, seized HIS arm and drove him hard over top the head with my revolver's barrel.
He'd claimed later he thought she was his daughter, run off and seeing a boy he didn't approve of, which held no water, for my little Dixie had yet to see her tenth birthday, and His Honor sentenced him to ... well, when the Judge found the man didn't have a daughter, and the court appointed headshrinker said he was sane, His Honor had neither sympathy nor mercy, and he won't breathe free air for another decade, if he survives.
His kind don't last long in a prison's general population.
Anyway Dixie settled her Stetson on her braided hair and she set it just so, for girls are like that, me, I just mashed my skypiece down on my gourd and we walked down to the barn.
Dixie changed out of her girly frilly frock and slippers and now she was in jeans and boots and a flannel shirt, she was in a Carhartt that was getting tight on her -- I looked down and realized her jeans were getting short on her, too -- good Lord, how fast is this child growing? -- anyway I whistled up Big Red, and the Paso gelding came pacing up and rubbed his head ag'in my front until I bribed him with a pepper mint, then he leaned down and muttered to Dixie and she rubbed his jaw and called him a good puppy, and I laughed, for she'd never called him a horsie, he'd always been a good puppy, and I never saw fit to correct her.
How could I correct something so absolutely cute, something I knew I'd remember into my old age ... I learned that from my Pa, who cherished such moments from my childhood.
So did my Uncle Will.
Matter of fact Uncle Will still tormented me about tripping over the design in the linoleum and I wasn't but about five years old at the time.
Old men, I knew, had long memories, and I was developing those same long memories, and I looked down at Dixie, looking up at me and her face clean-scrubbed and shining in the lantern light and I reached for the saddle blanket.
Big Red danced a little and Dixie backed up.
She'd seen me cut loose with a yell and a hard punch when a horse stepped on my foot: I was lucky, I had boots on and it didn't break anything, but it hurt like thunder and still aches when the weather changes.
I count it a good thing that my little girl learned from MY mistake, instead of making her own in that department.
Saddle blanket and saddle, bridle and I took Dixie around the waist and stood her up on a bale of hay: she waited until I was mounted, then she climbed the stall boards and half-swung, half-jumped a-straddle behind me, and off we went.
Big Red was a Paso Fino, and an unusually large example of the breed: he'd come from the Border country, from what used to be the Vega y Vega ranch, before it became almost a war zone: as bad as things had gotten here in Firelands County, things were much worse south of us: Big Red stepped out smooth and swift and fell into his paso largo gait.
Dixie giggled and clung to my back like a burr on a curly dog, and Big Red laid his ears back and leaned into a gallop and tucked his forelegs and shoved off with his back and we sailed over the board fence and Dixie's happy squeal trailed in the air behind us.
We set a nice easy pace cross country and 'twas not far to the ranch I had in mind.
Back years ago it had been the Macneil ranch, and they'd bred good horses there -- tough, mountain-bred, enough mesteño and Appaloosa with some Arab thrown in, and his horses were prized for their endurance, their toughness, and when needed, their speed.
Dixie insisted she wanted a zebra and I had something in mind.
I turned my head: "Princess," said I, "come up here in front of me."
"Okay, Daddy," she piped in that happy-little-girl voice of hers: she stood, swung a leg around me, I took her around the waist and she ended up sitting on Big Red's neck, facing me.
"Now darlin'," said I, "you know zebras are found in Africa."
Dixie nodded, big-eyed and solemn.
"And you know zebras have fighting fangs and they are vicious and mean and they kick lions to death."
She nodded again.
"They don't make good saddle mounts, darlin'. They've been saddled and ridden but they tend to chew their riders' legs off and do a Mexican hat dance on what's left of 'em."
Dixie giggled, gripped the front of my coat: "Daddy," she chided, "zebwas don't wear Mexican hats!"
"They don't?" I said, pretending to be surprised.
"No, Daddy, and Afwica isn't in Mexico. It's on the other side of West Virginia an' its a foreign country."
I could not refute such juvenile wisdom.
"Princess," said I, "I've been trying to find you a zebra, but this is not Africa."
Dixie frowned and considered the matter carefully, then looked up at me.
"If I don't have a zebwa, who's gonna help me if a lion comes after me?"
I stroked my chin and frowned, pretending to consider the far horizon as if it held a wise reply.
"Princess" said I, "you've got me there."
We rode on: I had her swing back around behind me.
The Bear Killer paced us, flanking well out, a shadow in the gathering dark.
We drew up on a little rise, looking at lights not terribly far off.
The Bear Killer came trotting up to us, his muzzle dripping: he'd stopped for a drink, by the look of it.
We held station for a little.
I let The Bear Killer and Big Red both catch their wind.
I'd not set a hard pace; Big Red had a nice easy gait, and he had a good bottom to his endurance, but I saw no need to test his reserves, and besides, I am getting old, and so is The Bear Killer.
Big Red found a little graze and took a drink from what Mama always called a "crick," she never called it a stream: I backed him up a little, and we cleared the water without setting hoof in it: Mama learned that from her Navajo segundo, who told her about respecting the spirits of the water, and I'd learned it from her, and even The Bear Killer jumped the water when we did.
I looked down and said "Bear Killer!"
The big black curly furred mountain Mastiff looked up at me and smiled, and the sight of those fighting ivories had turned more than one man's heart to water: criminals who might've tried to knife a Shepherd or a Malinois turned pasty white when The Bear Killer strolled around the corner, all bristled up and looking like death on four black paws.
His predecessor had taken criminals in his jaws on my Mama's behalf, and he never, ever came out in second place: this Bear Killer was his son, and though he was grey around the muzzle these days, he never lacked for speed nor strength.
I looked down at him and said "Bear Killer!" and he looked up at me and snapped his jaws with a quite "whuff!" and I said, "SING!"
The Bear Killer stopped and dropped his squared off backside on the ground, he taken himself in about twice as much air as his sizable frame could hold, and he pointed his grey lined black muzzle toward the cold, bright stars overhead, and he sang.
I have no idea how a dog's howl can contain so much.
He sang power and he sang authority, he sang sorrow and death and loss, he sang the joy of sharing our stove and the warlike charge into battle and he sang an ancient song of loyalty and companionship, and when he sang, he raised the hairs on my arms.
A lantern showed ahead, and we rode in.
"Howdy, Sheriff," a voice hailed me from the dark. "Seen any zebras lately?"
"I have not seen a single one," I declared. "How about yourself?"
"I found one."
I felt Dixie's grip tighten and she began to twist and wiggle behind me, so I reached around and managed to catch the back of her collar as she came a-bailin' off the saddle: she hung in my grip, kicking and protesting "Dad-deee!" and I swung down and The Bear Killer came up and tilted his head curiously at the sight of Dixie, dangling in my gloved grip, swinging arms and legs and making the noises a little girl makes when she's being kept from a cherished discovery.
I hoist her up and taken her around the middle: she was backside on my beltline and facing away from me and I said "You found a zebra! Do tell!"
Now it was darkening enough I had to look close, but I could tell my friend had a grin on his face as broad as two Texas townships.
Dixie didn't quite go limp but she quit trying to fight her way free: we walked, the lantern in the lead, then Bob, then Dixie and me, with Big Red and The Bear Killer flanking us: we came to his corral, and I set Dixie down.
"Stand fast," I told her, and I might as well have addressed a fighter jet at the moment the catapult slings it off a carrier deck.
She shot through the opening corral gate and streaked across the enclosure and skidded to a stop and looked up and the pole light shone down on her pale face and her eyes were huge and her mouth was open and she blinked and then she ran ahead and seized the Appaloosa around the leg and yelled "ZEBWA!"
Now Dixie had no idea I'd already bought her Zebra-horse -- it was an Appaloosa, but a rare variant, striped instead of spotted, and damned if it didn't look like a little girl's idea of what a zebra should be -- well, if it was drawn with felt markers and the stripes were kind of wobbly and maybe a splotch here and there instead of uniform stripes, but that didn't matter none a'tall to a little ten year old girl who always wanted a zebra of her very own.
Her Mama and I conspired to buy the horse, and the right size saddle for her, and of course Dixie had no idea we'd done this.
All she knew was she had a Zebra-horse that rubberlipped pepper mint from her palm, a Zebra-horse that plodded placidly around the corral with its new burden on its back.
That night was another one of those Daddy-memories an old man cherishes, and I did, and I spoke of it on my next communication with kinfolk on Mars, when I listened to the pale eyed Sheriff of the Second Martian Colony dictate into her computer, and I dictated my reply, and I added the video of Dixie riding that mild zebra striped Appaloosa mare.
I did not tell her about Dixie pointing her Zebra-horse toward the whitewashed board fence, nor how Dixie screamed with delight as she went into low ballistic orbit for a glorious, stomach tickling moment, as her Mama turned her back and folded her arms and whistled Dixie the way she did when Dixie and I got in trouble together.
I did wonder, when Dixie locked her heels in Zebra's barrel and Zebra kicked in the afterburners, when I leaned forward and yelled encouragement and Big Red streaked across the earth in pursuit, as I saw the striped Appaloosa soar through the air and make it look easy, and my little girl's delighted scream hung in the cold and frost-sparkled air ... I wondered if Old Pale Eyes felt that same way with his Angela.
Somehow ... somehow I think he did.