A Tin Roof Barn story
I was familiar with his breath. It smelled like crushed grass and was just on the edge of being metallic. His breath was warm and always accompanied by the tickle of his long whiskers. Followed by a nibble of his lips, which were constantly searching for a leftover piece of oats or apple that might remain in the palm of my hand. He had very long and yellowed teeth, several missing, and I was always terrified that he’d take a chomp on one of my 10 year old fingers, but he never did. He was a gentle giant and even though we occasionally disagreed about going for rides, I always knew he was my friend.
My grandfather owned a ranch in Southern California in the 1950s. He was a pilot for Western Airlines based out of Los Angeles, and lived with his family in the small rural community of Lake Hughes. My grandparents had three boys ages 12, 10 and 5, my father being the oldest. During their time on the ranch, the boys learned to shoot guns, ride horses, capture rattlesnakes, and live with a freedom that is only attainable in the country.
One evening in 1953, my grandfather saddled his horse, packed for a trek, and set out to roam the Tehachapi Mountains, something he tried to do whenever he came home from a long airline trip overseas. It was his time to unwind, reconnect with the country, and make the mental transition back to being a father and husband. He hadn’t been riding long when his horse, Regent, suddenly jerked his head. He was suddenly acting skittish and my grandfather knew what that meant: A predator had been or was nearby.
Very slowly, he pulled his shotgun out from behind his saddle and waited for any sign of danger. Mountain Lions were known to hunt the area but he had never had an encounter with one. Holding tightly to his gun, they walked slowly along the trail. The trail widened and my grandfather saw what had given Regent a start. A brand new foal was lying amidst the drying gore of his own delivery. Realizing that the mother had given birth possibly only minutes before the herd deserted, he knew that this foal would not survive long on it’s own. He fired a shot into the air to dissuade any possible predators that might attack and then aimed the gun at the foal’s head. Looking into its large brown eyes while it held up a wobbly head, my grandfather sighed, put the gun back on his saddle and lifted the tiny orphan up into his arms. Regent, however, would have nothing to do with a wild mustang, even it was just a foal. So my grandfather set the foal back down, held onto Regent’s reins and they all walked the miles back to the old farmhouse; my grandfather carrying the foal up the hills and then setting him back on the ground to totter alongside them as they went down the other side.
My father and his brothers had been asleep when their dad came in and woke them up. They were told to go to the screened in porch and that there was a surprise waiting for them there. The three boys excitedly approached the dutch door that separated the living room from the porch and there, peeping up from above the bottom half of the door, were two very alert and fuzzy pointed ears.
The foal was bottle-fed and cared for by each of the boys and my grandmother. After living with the family for several months, he had become a full-fledged member. He would toddle in through the front door and wait for the boys to come play with him before getting quickly chased back out the door by my grandmother. He was fed gumballs from the old gumball machine they had in the living room. The boys would wrestle him to the ground and feed him from their lunch sacks, and occasionally he would munch on the lunch sack itself. He would walk with them across the alfalfa field to the road where the boys would get picked up by the school bus, and putter around the ranch until they came home again. He played with the boys like he was their dog, and was constantly getting into things much like a child. He was named “Doing,” because he was constantly doing something and usually getting into trouble for it. He lived on the ranch for only 3 years.
My grandmother was concerned with the education that her boys were receiving from the one room schoolhouse in Lake Hughes. It was actually the oldest schoolhouse in California, and did not receive much funding back in the 1950s. The boys had plenty of room to grow while living in the remote area, but she did not feel that they were getting the education they would need to promote a successful adult life. In 1956 the family moved from Lake Hughes to Manhattan Beach where my father stayed until he graduated high school.
Doing was sold to one of my grandfathers Western Airlines co-pilots. The man had a 13 year old daughter who loved horses. Though Doing had never been broke, he would occasionally allow a rider and best of all, had the temperament of a Labrador Retriever. He made the perfect pet for a young girl. He was sold to several different families over the course of the next twenty years, each a family with young children and related in one way or another to Western Airlines, just like his original owners.
In 1971, my father and his bride took a road trip up California Highway 1, with the intention of looking for land in northern California. They had been living in Manhattan Beach and were tired of the city and eager to find a place where they could settle down. My mother was raised a city girl but loved the idea of a rural setting where they could eventually raise a family. They continued their drive north, past the California/Oregon border and each time my mother said, “Why don’t we see what’s here,” my father would say, “Let’s see what’s just a bit farther down the road.” At the Oregon/Washington border, they veered east traveling along the Columbia River growing more and more fascinated by it with each mile they drove. They found a farm for sale with over 100 acres in a lush green valley which included a house and barn, gorgeous views of Mt Adams, and the White Salmon river nearby. The original owners of the property wanted $80,000 and though my father’s max budget was $60,000, he knew this was where he and his wife were meant to be.
They had been living on the farm in Washington for a couple years and began wondering whatever had happened to the wild mustang of my father’s youth. They contacted my grandfather who knew the name of the man who had bought Doing from him. Through that man, they were able to contact the next family and so on until one man finally said, “Oh yes, we have him and now that my kids are older we’re selling him.” My parents flew back down to California and paid the man one hundred dollars for the old gelding, which also included the original bridal and saddle that he had been sold with so many years before. Doing was loaded into a Chevy flatbed farm truck with a makeshift “stall,” and along with my parents and two black and white rabbits, traveled back up the coast to the farm in the Columbia River Gorge.
My mom and dad remember the day they let Doing out of the truck and introduced him to the large pasture that would be his final home – he hadn’t had free range since he had lived with my grandparents on the ranch in Lake Hughes. He walked down the ramp and then took off like a bullet, bucking and galloping around the field in unbridled glee.
I only remember Doing as an “old man.” When I was very young, around 5 years old, I would walk around the fields with him, occasionally getting the coveted ride on his back when my parents would help me up. As I got older and horses were the center of my universe like many little girls, I wanted him to take me on rides where we could canter, lope and maybe even get to go around a few barrels like the cowgirls I knew did with their horses. But that wasn’t Doing. He had been born a wild mustang, and was never properly broke. Even though he was always extremely docile and patient, I think he knew he was wild at heart and that was the one part of his heritage that he held on to. Looking back, I am horrified at the familiar way I acted around him as a child. I would duck under his belly and braid his tail, hang onto his mane and squeeze his chin. I don’t know why he put up with me but he did. Then again, he grew up around children and they had always been a part of his life. He never once kicked, bit, or acted aggressive or annoyed. Along with the dog and cat, he was one of my childhood friends, someone I would walk out to the barn to visit, just to see how he was doing.
I don’t remember the lump on his neck when it was small, only when it had taken over the entire right side of it; a grotesque deformity that made him look lopsided. My parents and younger sisters and I weren’t living in the farmhouse anymore. My dad had built a new house a couple miles away, and I didn’t get over to the barn to see Doing as often as I once had. His age was taking a toll on him. He was lethargic and moved slowly. He developed a lesion on his back, one that would not heal, and I remember the vet coming out multiple times to clean out the maggots that were feasting on his broken flesh. But he survived. Over the months, he just kept plodding along even as he grew more and more weary.
I will never forget that morning. My parents had left my little sisters at our house but took me to the barn where Doing lived, and we watched as he was led outside. The vet was there, as he had been multiple times, but this time he was holding a syringe. My mother kept me at a distance until I got to go and say goodbye to him. It didn’t entirely make sense to me that Doing was going to go to sleep and not wake up, because he nuzzled my palm like he always did, searching for the treats I would bring him. His breath was on my upturned face and I stared into his deep brown eyes as I had many times before. I told him I loved him and walked back to my mother. We watched as the vet came up to Doing and gently patted him, then started running his hand down Doing’s engorged neck. My father was acting in a way I had never seen before. He had his head down and was holding Doing’s nose in his hands, while talking quietly to him. He leaned down and kissed him on his forehead, right on the spot where his hair formed a star, where I had always assumed his horn had been when he was once a unicorn. Doing’s knees buckled, and he went down on his front legs, his head now upturned as my father was still holding tightly to his face. He rolled onto his side and my father helped him gently lay his head down on the grass, lightly wet with the morning dew. I’ve never seen my father cry, but I’m pretty sure it’s because on that morning, my mother had kept me too far away to witness it. At 33 years old, the wild mustang was gone.