It hath been often said, that it is not death, but dying, which is terrible.~ Henry Fielding, Amelia
The End of the Tracks
To every story another side. To everything, an ending, regardless of the manner of it. The story yet untold puts a narrow twist in the ending, a thing perhaps unforeseen. Looking back at such a passage, one questions the path leading up to it, perplexed and lost as to whether the ending is a true one. For that, we can only look back to the beginning and wonder.
A day as a groom on a working horse farm is a long day and a hard one, full of dealing with small problems, one after the other. Farriers, veterinarians come to work on the horses, carpenters and plumbers come to work on the farm itself. The whole of the population of the grooms remains busy the entire day just to assist and reorganize everything in the order it came up. The main chores of feeding and caring for the horses all still have to be done. That old cliche about one foot in front of the other comes to be almost a religion on days of that sort.
At the end of one whirlwind day, I prepared to head home. The next day was our day off, and all I could think of was getting some gone. That's why I was standing in the wide open door of the foaling barn when the annoying little red-headed farm manager walked up the hill with his two blue heeler dogs; I was watching for Ronnie to pick me up to go home. The thoughts of a cool shower (not that we had any other kind, with well-water and a tiny twenty gallon water heater) to get the crud off, then a trip back home to the hills for the evening, ran through my head. The last thing I wanted to do was try to be civil to someone who always managed to be almost but not quite slyly rude.
He wanted me to trim his fat bitch's toenails, since he knew I kept nippers designed for a dog that size and could use them without hurting the already nervous dog. Without wasting too many words, I told him I'd do it on Sunday, when we came back to work. I didn't have the tool with me right then. It was a cool day, but inside the edge of the barn it wasn't bad, so the man showed me the dog's crooked toenail, the main problem, as we stood there. We were bent over the restless canine in the shelter of the doorway when an awful racket suddenly began in the large paddock just past the string of tiny newborn foal nursery paddocks beside the big barn.
It wasn't unusual to see or hear horses running in a paddock of some size, so we had paid little attention to the pounding of hooves so close to us. Another farm employee drove up in a rush as the manager and I charged out of the barn, dog forgotten entirely. We threaded our way through the little pens and across the wide, white gravel driveway.
In the nearest corner of the field lay the twitching form of a large horse. Nearby stood three other mares looking on and blowing, their eyes white-rimmed with fright at the strong smell of blood. The body of the downed animal was partially hidden behind a semi-conical cement water tank that thrust up from the ground to about waist high. The wide top of the structure obscured her head and neck from our view. We couldn't tell if she was alive or dead, or what had happened.
The other farm worker almost fell, trying to get out of his truck in a hurry. He told us he'd seen it all. The man's voice was high and tight-wound with shock and amazement. The picture of four mares racing around the field was so beautiful, he said, that he'd stopped to watch them. They were running for the pure joy, just running wide open and all together in a line, as if from a race-track starting gate. The horses had swept the turn of the field, then headed toward the foaling barn corner. He saw the water trough, and thought the mares would part to go around it.
At the last minute one mare went off to one side, two went off to the other side, and The Freight Train didn't. She did what she was almost legendary for, just plowed on, straight into the heavy cement structure. It was empty, which didn't help; the impact threw her over into it and back out, from which she thrashed (trying instinctively to get up, no doubt) to the other side, a full quarter-turn back where she'd come from. She was clearly a mess; there was a leg that didn't look right, blood on her face, neck, chest, and ribs, and a large dent in the side of her barrel, with smeared bloody marks on her ribcage. She looked like she had been hit by a freight train instead of being nicknamed for one, the poor old girl.
The manager smiled, rubbing his neck with a kind of grim satisfaction. F.T. had dumped him on his neck not a week before, when he "quicked" her with a horseshoe nail too close to the living tissue of her foot. She was afraid of farriers, and he had insisted on doing the job because it paid extra money, big money by comparison to the average horseman's wage. He hated the mare with an abiding passion.
A small crowd gathered; Ronnie had showed up, and since the way off the farm was beside the scene of the wreck, so to speak, the foaling barn parking lot filled up fast. Someone called the farm secretary, who called the farm owner (she was out of the country), and someone called the veterinarian. The whole time grooms took turns sitting at F. T.'s head, preventing her from thrashing with a firm, gentle hold and by soothing her with kind words and soft voice. The old mare was clumsy, but she wasn't mean or hard to handle in general. She was a friendly old soul; everyone on the farm knew her.
When the vet got there, he sucked in his breath as soon as he saw her lying there. Most of us already knew that she wasn't going to get out of this one alive, but his was the voice the insurance company and the farm owner would hear above all others. We just hoped he could go on and help her get some peace.
She lay there on the cold, damp autumn soil, covered in layers of straw and old blankets for the rest of the night, until she died on her own in the early morning. The farm manager kept telling the farm's owner one thing, the veterinary told her another. The insurance company would, as a result, believe none of them, having also heard it all. In the end, F.T. saved them the trouble of being humane or decent and took a last, long breath riddled with foamy red bubbles. The bubbles sparkled ruby-bright and slow in the morning's frost, though her eyes were as dull as the muddy ground around her when I went to tell her goodbye. It was the end of the tracks for the old Freight Train.
She had one last race, on her own turf, in her own way. The old mare was ahead of the others when they split off and left her. It was the last race she ever ran, her dignity stolen at the end, but her pride still intact: no sound louder than a soft groan did she make in suffering, the whole time.