Cold Bluff

The sound of the dogs barking outside drew Will Ritter’s attention away from his dinner. Through the kitchen window he could see his two Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Scarlet and Boone, standing near the front of his pickup truck and barking their fool heads off. At what, Will couldn’t tell. Probably just a raccoon.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBut as their barking grew shrill, Will got to his feet and hobbled to the front door.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Knock it off!” he growled from the porch.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAt the sound of his voice, a white horse popped its head up from behind the bed of the truck. Will locked eyes with the animal for a moment, then the horse dropped its head and resumed grazing.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBoone had stopped barking once he’d seen Will, but Scarlet still let out a few low, huffing barks. Will placed a hand on her head as he passed.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Easy Scarlet,” he said. “Don’t want to scare him off.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill slowly made his way around the side of the truck until he could see the white horse. The animal glanced at him, but didn’t leave off cropping grass near the truck’s back tire.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe guessed the horse was at least six years old. A black zigzagging scar cut across his right side, likely the work of a barbed wire fence. Though the horse wore no halter or tack of any kind, Will could see the horse had been well cared for. His coat was shining, his haunches filled out, and his mane neatly pulled. The horse had a little mud on his hooves, but someone had clearly been keeping his feet trimmed.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill reached into the bed of his pickup for a rope. Living near Rocky Mountain National Park, he’d learned it was always best to be prepared. Numerous lost dogs, horses, cows, and even a pet turkey had wandered onto his property over the years.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAs Will approached, the white horse moved a bit to the left, but did not flee. Will held his breath as he took a few more slow steps towards the horse, until he was level with his shoulder. Gently, Will eased the loop of rope over his face and down his neck.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhen the horse felt the rope tightening around his neck, he instinctively tried to pull back.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Easy, boy,” Will soothed. “You’re all right.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter a moment, the horse relaxed and pricked his ears forward. Will laid a hand against the horse’s snow-white neck.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Somebody’s going to be looking for you.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill brought the white horse up to the barn and put him in the empty stall at the end. His other two horses, Blue and Aspen, nickered at the new arrival as Will walked to the hay barn to grab a flake of hay. He knew the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office had already closed for the day, but he’d give the Cold Bluff Police Department a call when he got back to the house.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter tossing the horse the flake, Will filled a wheelbarrow with shavings and started to make up the stall. He didn’t know how long he’d have the white horse so he might as well make him comfortable. The last time a lost horse had wandered onto his property, it had taken three days for the owners to track him down.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhile he worked on the stall, Will looked the horse over more closely. He appeared uninjured, which was good. While Will never wanted a horse to suffer on his watch, making medical decisions for an animal that wasn’t his always made him uncom-fortable.
IIIIIIIIIIIIExcept for the scar on his side, the horse didn’t appear to have any readily identifiable markings. No hip or neck brand that he could see. Later, if the horse proved friendly enough, he’d try checking his upper lip for a tattoo.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAs Will smoothed out the shavings in the back of the stall, he felt something bump against his backside. He turned around to find the white horse standing behind him. The horse stretched out his head and started sniffing around the front pockets of his jeans.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I don’t have any treats for you,” Will said, scratching the horse behind the ear. In response, the white horse tilted his head and Will dropped his hand to rub along the underside of the
horse’s face, in the soft area between his jaw bones. The horse sighed and half closed his eyes.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Don’t worry, boy. We’ll find your owner soon.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhen Will came out of the barn, Scarlet and Boone were lying on the gravel driveway, waiting for him. When they saw him, they got up and trailed behind him as he walked back to the house.
IIIIIIIIIIII His steak was still on the table where he’d left it. With a sigh, Will grabbed the plate and put it in the microwave. Then he picked up the new landline phone his daughter, Julie, had forced him to buy after his wife his died. Well, it’d been six years, but Will still thought of it as the new phone.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe called down to the police station and was surprised when he heard his old friend, Bobby Pickford, on the line.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I thought that when you became Chief of Police, you wouldn’t have to answer the phone anymore,” Will said.
IIIIIIIIIIII“You know Will, I thought so too. But these young guys are always going on vacation and, well, someone’s got to man the line,” Bobby replied. “So, what’s going on?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Had a lost horse wander onto my property just after sun-set. Not one I’ve seen around before. Anyone called in looking?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Not yet,” Bobby said. “But let me take down the details. And make sure you call the Sheriff tomorrow when they open, let them know, too.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill spent a few more minutes with Bobby, giving him a description of the white horse and exchanging pleasantries. Bobby promised to call him back in a couple days if no one phoned about the horse in the meantime.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAs Will sat down again to finally eat his dinner, he thought of his daughter, Julie. She’d always wanted a white horse of her own. But Will had made her wait, promising to buy her one when she turned thirteen. Except by the time Julie turned thirteen, she’d lost interest in horses completely. Lost interest in everything she and Will had once had in common. All she wanted to do was spend time with her friends, drive down to the mall in Boulder and flirt with boys.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe thought about calling Julie now, telling her he’d finally gotten her that white horse. But it’d been eighteen months since he last talked to his daughter. Talked to her voicemail, actually, since Julie had never called him back. He wasn’t sure the answer-ing machine would find his joke very funny at all.
By the fourth day, Will had taken to calling the white horse Ford since he’d found him standing next to the pickup and he was built just like one. And since no one had called about him, Will was resigned to the fact that he might have acquired another horse.
IIIIIIIIIIIISince the first morning, he’d been turning the three horses out together. Ford took to his new herd like a duck to water, and they to him. There’d been no squealing fights or flying hooves. Ford had instantly recognized Blue as the alpha and fallen in alongside Aspen, who seemed to regard him as her equal. As Will puttered around the property, he’d often glance up to find Ford and Aspen grooming each other or Ford standing guard while the other two napped.
IIIIIIIIIIIIOn the fifth day, Will was fixing the fence when he heard the phone ringing in the house. Fall had arrived in the Rocky Mountains, which meant cool mornings and warm afternoons. But snow could arrive any day now, which meant Will had to finish the fence before the ground froze. He got to his feet with a grunt and wiped the sweat from his brow before trudging back across the grass.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe had a message on the answering machine when he got back to the house. Bobby Pickford calling him back. Will liked that about Bobby – he always did what he said he would. But as Will listened to the message, it struck him that there was a note of concern in Bobby’s tone.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Someone call on the horse?” Will asked when Bobby picked up.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Not exactly,” said Bobby. “I need you to come down to the station.”
Will shifted in his chair. It’d been a long, long time since he’d visited the Cold Bluff Police Station, not since Julie had been busted drinking in the woods with her friends at fifteen. But he could see they hadn’t improved the furniture any. The chairs were still just as uncomfortable as he remembered.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAcross from him, Bobby Pickford drummed his fingers against the table. Bobby had gone a little fat in his old age and the buttons of his uniform strained across his chest and stomach.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Somebody called about a truck and trailer near Lupine Lake. We went by and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, but tagged it just the same. Forty-eight hours went by and it was still there, so we picked it up and ran the plates.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Now I’m not saying that horse you found is connected to the vehicle, but when we went back to pick it up, couple of officers walked the perimeter of the lake and checked through the brush for anything unusual. Only thing we found was a halter and lead tied to a tree and some hoof prints in the mud by the lake’s edge.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“And what about the owner of the truck?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I can’t tell you much since we’re still investigating, but I will tell you we haven’t been able to reach him on the phone. One of my guys is looking for relatives as we speak. Could be nothing, but could be something.” Bobby paused. “I know it’s a lot to ask since you’ve already been taking care of that horse, but could you hang onto him a little while longer?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Of course,” said Will. “He’s no trouble at all. But I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t think his owner abandoned him. Somebody loved that horse. Really loved him. So if I were you, I’d keep looking around the lake. And maybe in the lake, too.”
When Bobby called him again on Saturday, Will knew even before he picked up the phone that the news wasn’t going to be good. And it wasn’t. Bobby asked him to come back down to the station that afternoon. With pictures of the horse.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter he changed out of his jeans and flannel, Will started rooting through the drawers in the kitchen, looking for his cell phone. He rarely used the thing, but before she’d left Colorado, Julie had made him buy one. Will had kept it in the box for the next year after she’d left.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBut eighteen months ago, when Julie hadn’t called him back, he’d taken to turning it on once a day. Just to check and see if she’d called him. She never had.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe knew she was busy. And in the beginning, he’d told himself that’s all it was. That she’d call him back as soon as she had a moment. After all, he could see no reason why she wouldn’t.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThough as the months went by, he’d started to mull their last conversation over in his mind. Pulling it apart, turning his words inside out, wondering if he’d done something to offend her. But no matter how many times he went over it, he just couldn’t seem to figure it out.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill finally found the cellphone next to the microwave and then spent another fifteen minutes looking for the manual. He knew it could take pictures, Julie had shown him that in the store, but he’d never tried it out for himself.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAn hour later he was back at the police station, sitting in the uncomfortable chair again and talking to Bobby while a young gun got the pictures off his phone.
IIIIIIIIIIII“We reached his daughter in Kansas,” Bobby said. “She said she and her dad weren’t close. But she knew he came to Colorado every fall to go camping and riding in the mountains.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby told him about the body they’d pulled from the lake. A man in his late sixties. About their age. He’d still had his ID on him, which matched the name registered to the trailer and truck.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Did he…did he go quickly?” Will asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“We think so. The medical examiner said he died of a heart attack. He didn’t drown.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe young officer returned with Will’s cellphone and placed it on the table in front of him.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Did the pictures help?” Will asked.
The man nodded. “I sent them to his daughter.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Do you all need to come out to my property and look at the horse?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“We’ll wait and see what she says,” said Bobby.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Is she going to know if that’s his horse though? As you said, it seems like she wasn’t very involved in her Dad’s life.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“We’re pretty confident this is his horse we just need to confirm. It doesn’t seem like he had him registered anywhere, though, so we’re looking for that original bill of sale.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“And like I said last time, he doesn’t seem to have a brand or a lip tattoo either. Just that scar on his side.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Which definitely makes our job harder, but not impossible.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill sighed. “I just want to make sure if this is the horse, he’s going back to a good situation. With people who care what happens to him. Ford’s a nice horse. A really nice horse.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Ford?” Bobby asked. “You named him?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I’ve had him more than a week, you think I was just going to keep calling him White Horse the whole time?”
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby rubbed his chin. “I just don’t want you getting attached, Will.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I’m not attached. But I’m not going to let him go to a bad end either. If this is really the horse, have the daughter call me. On the house line, not that thing.” Will nodded to the cellphone on the table.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBobby nodded. “All right, Will. We’ll have her call you.”
When he got home from the police station, Will took Ford out of his stall, brushed him down, and threw a saddle on him. He knew he probably shouldn’t be riding him. He didn’t know anything about the horse. And now that he might have found Ford’s people, he knew their time was likely drawing to an end.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBut Will felt compelled just the same to honor the man they’d pulled from the lake with one last ride.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAs Will put a foot in the stirrup and slung a leg over Ford’s back, he noticed the sun was just starting to dip behind Cold Bluff Mountain in the distance. Shadows lengthened across the ground. He smelled wood smoke on the breeze as people lit their fireplaces to ward off the evening chill. On the radio, he’d heard that the first snow was expected next week.
IIIIIIIIIIIIFord, for his part, seemed completely unbothered by the strange weight on his back. He lazily swished his tail and ambled forward as Will guided him to the tree line. He knew better than to ride in the woods when it was growing dark, but they’d be all right if they kept to the perimeter of the property. He whistled for Scarlet and Boone, who came at a run. Ford flicked an ear in their direction, but otherwise seemed unconcerned about the two large dogs bearing down on him.
IIIIIIIIIIIIFor the next hour, Ford and Will wandered the property as Will tried to ignore the knot that had settled in his belly since he’d gone down to the police station and heard what Bobby had to s ay.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe fact that the story of the dead man they’d pulled from Lupine Lake could have been Will’s story was not lost on him. He sometimes trailered Blue out to that lake for a weekend of camping and relaxing. He always went alone and though he carried that cell phone, the reception was spotty. If he should have a heart attack, he doubted the device would be enough to save him. Then it would be Bobby calling Julie, instead of the dead man’s daughter in Kansas.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAnd then what would become of Blue and Aspen? Of Scarlet and Boone? He’d had a will drawn up ages ago and he knew it included what he wanted done with the animals, but how would Julie know what was a good home and what wasn’t? What if she gave them to the wrong people? People who would hurt them and let them down. People who wouldn’t love them as Will had. Julie might try her best and still fail his creatures.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill hooked the fingers of his free hand into Ford’s mane. He wouldn’t let that happen to this horse. No matter what Bobby said. He wasn’t letting him go until he knew Ford was going to someone who loved him, who would make sure the rest of his days, however many remained, were happy ones.
IIIIIIIIIIIIIt was the least he could do.
Back at the barn, Will took his time grooming Ford. He ran a curry over every inch of his coat, turning slow, rhythmic circles. Ford’s eyes drooped as Will worked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I think I should call Julie again,” he said. “I called her not too long before you showed up, though she still hasn’t called me back. I don’t want to seem like I’m bothering her, but I’m worried.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe set the curry down and grabbed a brush from his grooming box.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I wish she would tell me what I’ve done, why she doesn’t want to talk to me. I’ve turned our last conversations upside down and tried to shake something loose, but I’ve got nothing.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIFord half-turned his head to look at him and Will placed a hand against the horse’s forehead. The white horse gently leaned into the pressure and sighed.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I’d just like to know that she’s safe and that she’s doing okay. It’s the not-knowing that’s killing me.”
After dinner that night, Will pulled the house phone from its place on the counter over to the kitchen table. Then he grabbed a beer from the fridge and popped the top off. He took a long pull as he stared at the receiver.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe still called Julie about once a month. Still left messages for her, though she’d once scolded him for leaving voicemails that just said to call him back. She was the one who’d explained what caller ID was and that if he called her, she’d get a notification on her phone. So he knew she was getting the calls. She was just choosing, for whatever reason, to ignore them.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill took another long swig of his beer, letting the flavor of it settle against his taste buds, feeling the alcohol set his blood buzzing. Then, he put the bottle down and reached for the phone.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Hey Julie. It’s Dad. Remember that white horse you always wanted?”
Victoria Amberlee called him the same day the first snow fell. Will watched through the window as a thin dusting settled onto the roof of the barn.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Thank you so much for looking after Trooper, Mr. Ritter,” Victoria said. She sounded a bit uncertain, unsure of what to say to a man she’d never met that had now become part of her family’s story. “I think it would have made my father very happy to know his horse had such excellent care while the police tracked me down.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“You’re welcome,” Will said. “It’s what we do here in Cold Bluff. Look out for one another.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“When I was younger, my father often talked about retiring up there. Said that it was the type of place he could see himself spending the rest of his days. But that was before…well, I don’t want to bother you with our tragedies.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Every family has them,” Will said, gently.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I suppose.” She paused, as if there was more she wanted to say. But when she spoke again, her tone had shifted. Victoria was suddenly all business, efficient. Speeding through the motions that were required to tie off the loose ends of her father’s life. “Anyway I wanted to talk to you about Trooper. I finally located my father’s will. That’s why it took me so long to call you. I wanted to know what he wanted done with his horse.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill didn’t like the clinical coldness that had come into her tone, the way she talked about the horse as if he were an object to be itemized and disposed of, like a painting or a rug.
IIIIIIIIIIII“He, of course, wants to make sure Trooper is taken care of. So first I’ll need to arrange transport from your property back to Kansas for him. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about hauling horses would you Mr. Ritter?”
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe ignored her question. “And when you get him back, what happens then?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Well, he’ll be for sale. I don’t ride myself. I used to a long time ago. But it’s been years since I’ve ridden. I just don’t have the time for it anymore. So once I get him back and can verify
he’s in good health, I’ll put an ad in the paper. Or however people sell horses these days.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIThrough the window, he could see the barn. Blue and Ford’s stalls were on the side facing the house and Aspen’s was on the far side. He’d left the windows to their stalls open and as he watched, Ford popped his head out and looked around. Almost as if he knew his fate was being decided over a clipped phone conver-sation between two strangers.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWill squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “How much were you hoping to fetch for him?”
The weather forecast called for a blizzard overnight and Will had spent extra time making sure Blue, Aspen, and Ford had plenty of food to keep them occupied. He’d shut the windows on their stalls and closed the barn doors up as tight as he could.
IIIIIIIIIIIIIt had been a month since he’d talked to Victoria Amberlee. A month since he’d officially become the owner of three horses. Will was beginning to think he might need to hire someone part-time to help him keep up with all the chores. Five animals were a lot to take care of. And if the cold blowing in was any indication, it was going to be a long, tough winter.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe phone rang just as Will got back to the house. He looked at the caller ID as he unzipped his jacket. Los Angeles. Will didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBut something compelled him to pick up the phone. To not let it ring through to voicemail.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Will here,” he said.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHis knees nearly buckled when he heard her voice come on the line.
Final Judge Conor Bracken
on “Trench”:
“Trench” is a bit of a magic trick. It does what Plato says poets do: lies to you so convincingly you want to believe it, even once you know it’s lying to you. The speaker negotiates this tricky balancing act between being both the everyman—connected through futile labor to legions of people, mostly men, digging in mines and war and terror—but also being utterly unique, doing this work that will not be appreciated by the beneficiaries, who themselves wouldn’t even think to do it. Only he can be out there, heaving five tons of muck and putting it back. There’s a way, too, he has with the diction, where the consonants slither and slap like wet clay—the mimesis, it’s part of the lie. This poem, this trench dug through time and static to us, is Yeats meeting Philip Levine (who knew what work is) in a rainstorm, looking up for a second from the labor to give a curt nod, then bending back to it, to enter the rhythm and lose, for a blissful, blistering span, the self.
Conor Bracken’s first book of poems, The Enemy of My Enemy is Me, will be out this June from Diode Editions. His chapbook, Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), won the fifth annual Frost Place Chapbook Competition, and he is the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, 2019), and Jean D’Amérique’s No Way in the Skin Without This Bloody Embrace (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2022). His work has earned fellowships from Bread Loaf, the Community of Writers, the Frost Place, Inprint, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has appeared, or will soon, in BOMB, Gulf Coast, New England Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Sixth Finch, and more. An assistant poetry editor at Four Way Review, he lives and teaches in Ohio.

Comments are closed.