`Blind Horse

“Howdy, Ma’am.”

“Hello,” I replied, smiling back at the sunburned young packer.

“Just set your duffel over there under that tree, Ma’am. We’ll be loading up real soon.”

“OK. Thanks.” I turned and threw my gear on the pile of bags, crates and coolers waiting to be packed onto horses and carried into the Idaho wilderness.

I rejoined my five friends with a little dance of delight. “This is so great! A whole week hiking with no backpacks to carry.” As we chattered together in anticipation, we watched the activity around the string of horses as they were haltered, packsaddles settled on their backs, and gear weighted out and sorted into loads.

The horses stood patiently in the sun. I counted eight of them – a couple of bays, a paint, four sorrels and a nice looking buckskin who caught my eye. Just then the lead wrangler walked over to our group.

“You young ladies can go on ahead now. We’ve got all your gear, and Jack and I’ll finish up loading and pass you soon enough on the trail. Remember we’re camping tonight at Big Lost Lake near that meadow on the north end. We’ll have a fire going and dinner started when you get there.”

We grabbed our daypacks and headed up the horse-worn trail feeling light on our feet. I glanced at the buckskin. He was standing quietly just as before.

When we straggled into camp late that afternoon all was as promised and we busied ourselves with putting up tents, changing into warmer clothing and walking down to the shallow alpine lake for a quick face wash.

Right before dinner, Jack, the young packer, brought the string in from grazing. The buckskin suddenly pulled back and the teenager jerked him hard on the halter. I walked over.

“What’s the problem with that buckskin?”

“Ma’am, this horse is trouble. I can’t keep a rider on him, so we switched him to carrying gear this trip. A couple of weeks ago he got into a commotion and rubbed a lady off under a tree branch. He’s always getting tangled up, spooks real easy. That upsets the string and makes all kinds of extra work for me.”

“Why’s he like that sometimes? He seems gentle enough.”

“I don’t know. Guess it’s ‘cause he don’t see so good.” With that, Jack added a final sharp tug to the buckskin’s halter, tied him to a tree and walked off to continue his chores.

I slowly approached the horse, talking softly and offering my hand. He was quiet now and he snuffled his warm breath at me and I bent down and breathed a greeting in reply. I looked into his eyes and they were cloudy. I passed my hand in front of his face and he hardly reacted. This horse was almost blind.

Each morning before our hike and each evening after we’d settled into a new camp, I left my friends and led the buckskin out into the meadows for extra grazing. I saw he had a hard time finding the best grass on his own. I rubbed him and reassured him, but he never told me what he thought of all the extra attention.

Daily, I watched him being packed up, tied to the horse ahead and led up the trail in what I imagined was the bravest trip through murky shadows and unclear footing, pulled along relentlessly by the horse ahead. Sometimes he got scared, even when I was quietly leading him to the meadow, and then he shied and stiffened and I wondered that he ever clamed again and that he carried on day after day.

Jack tolerated my attending to his horse, but just barely. “Why don’t you go back to your friends at the fire, Ma’am? This ol’ boy could act up at any time. I can’t figure why my boss even keeps him. I sure wouldn’t.”

At the end of the last long hot day hiking back down out of the mountains we reached the pack station. I made sure the buckskin got water and his fair share of the oats and hay that were waiting after he had been unsaddled.

“Jack, where’s your boss?” I had grown to like this young man who did take good care of his horses. He had informed me this morning that the buckskin hadn’t caused too much hassle this trip considering he couldn’t see too good.

“He’ll be in the office behind the barn, Ma’am.”

I walked over into the small dusty room, took a deep breath and spoke to the weathered face adding up our bill. “I want to buy that buckskin in your string. How much would you take?”

He touched his hat. “Ma’am, I’m real glad you like my horses, but I’m afraid I can’t let any of ‘em go. It’s been real tight this year. Hard to find a good trained hose and I lost a few of ‘em last winter. I’m fully booked now through hunting season and I don’t have the time or the wrangler to train new stock right now.”

“Please, that buckskin is almost blind and it’s not safe for him or the gear.” I knew I was on thin ice.

“Ma’am, I know he don’t see great, but the kid said he did OK this trip and we’ll just keep him where he is in the pack string. I’ve had horses with bad eyes before and once they learn their job they settle right in. I’m sorry, Ma’am. He’s not for sale. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to finish my numbers here so you all can head home.”

“What about $800.00?” This was outrageous money I didn’t have to spare and I didn’t have a trailer and I didn’t have a pasture. I lived 300 miles away in the city, but I wanted to take him with me away from his life in the pack string.

“Ma’am, if you had $2,000.00 I couldn’t sell him. I need all my horses right now. That old buckskin’ll be just fine. He brushed past me out of the office.

I could not buy him and I surely could not steal him, so I left him there tied to a tree eating oats. My friend’s were hollering at me to hurry up. I just ran away to the car and someone found me a box of Kleenex. The guilt of leaving him stung for months. But slowly my life moved on, and I forgot.

Many years later at a time of terrible grief, I cried to the heavens for help. Who should appear just then so strong in my mind that I could put my arms around his golden neck and draw in his warmth, but that old blind buckskin horse. I felt his breath hot on my face and I looked deep into his clouded eyes. Slowly and deliberately, as if he knew the way, he began to lead me out of my darkness.

Susan Gilliland