The Good Day
I arrived in Vermont around suppertime and, after dishes, walked through the exhalation of a dusty, hot day down to the clapboard horse barn, across a small graveled stream, through a darkly bowered path, and emerged into our summer horse pasture. I called out; Chief and Concho trotted up to the gate expecting a treat, a hard biscuit or an apple sawed in half with a pocketknife. Upon realizing that no cookies were forthcoming, Concho, a nervous fawn and white paint, pivoted and trotted off, but Chief, cheerful and needy, placed his head on my shoulder, snorted lazily, and nuzzled. Then he tried to eat my watch, nipped at my blue jeans, and gummed my shirtsleeve.
I bought the two of them as a pair from a cowboy in Saratoga Springs who used them to pace racehorses at the track in sunrise workouts. Concho is the more athletic of the twosome, able to maintain a steady lope uphill, whereas Chief easily explodes into a full gallop, but his flanks soon froth up, his gait wavers, his eyes bulge, and his coat turns dark with sweat over the long haul.
On farms, death is no stranger. We buy a dozen fluffy new chicks each year since foxes, hawks, and raccoons pick off singles like snipers. Pigs go off to slaughter. A cat is called home but never again skitters across the lawn to the back porch. A neighbor dies in a freak accident, a tree crushing his cab, or an unexpected heart attack takes a man with a young family. And sometimes death is kind; years ago, a local farmer collapsed in a field, calling in his cows. We spent hours up on the dark ridges at sunset, tracking down the last of his Jerseys. He died well.
If you ride horses long enough, you start to imagine the world through their eyes. Humans worry about death, about how things are going to end. And we add to this misery the disappointment of love and the uncertainty that the future presents, like a roiling black sky past a distant ridgeline. Standing four-square in the half-light of a June evening, Chief was probably thinking that the grass was plentiful, the weather was sunny and cool, the black flies had come and gone, and there was a nice breeze out of the northwest. He may have wondered about tomorrow, but likely not. Horses probably consider things one day at a time.
Last January, Tom’s beagle, Bernadette, had a good day. We went rabbit hunting with our sons, Charlie and Nate. Charlie got the first rabbit within half an hour, Bernadette flushed a couple more, and then she got onto a big brownie, a rabbit so wily that he is now a local legend. She pushed him out of a thicket down through the woods, onto a lower pasture, and into a swamp. We stood up above, watching Bernadette run hard, doubling back, circling, sniffing hard when she lost the scent. And then, bang, her tail and head snapped up and she was off again. We saw the rabbit come out by a stone wall and sit: Charlie shot and missed. Over the course of two hours, he ran, hid, popped out, popped back, and we never got another clear shot. Finally, as the January afternoon faded, and a light snow started to settle on our red wool caps, the rabbit was holed up in a large patch of scrub surrounded by pasture. Nate, Charlie, and I had him surrounded. The dog went in and the rabbit exploded headlong, running flat out. A quick shot was taken but the rabbit was free and clear, headed back to the swamp in a well-deserved victory lap.
Bernadette was all in; she slept the better part of two days. Tom kept her in the house until she recovered. She’d had a good day. Nighttime must have brought on a stew of rabbit scent and thorny brush, the feel of sharp, crystal snow on the pads of her feet, the sound of a shotgun, the whiff of gunpowder, and a glimpse of a Vermont brownie disappearing into the brush, its long back feet propelling it forward, kicking up miniature snow devils. Death is no stranger to a trained beagle. She has caught up to dead prey in thickets dozens of times, even held rabbits in her mouth, but I’ll bet she has never worried about her own end. For her, it must be the whisper of something far off, too distant to compete with the scent of life that courses through her nose during the hunt.
The day after I visited the horse pasture was another good day. I rode Concho up into the mountains. I helped a neighbor put up hay. I sat on the porch with neighbors and had a cool glass of spicy wine. The kids and I grilled chicken and made a salad. We watched a Charlie Chan movie and went to bed in the twilight, before the day had faded. It was a good day. Death can wait until tomorrow.