Sancho Panza had fallen on the ice. When the boys went out to get wood for the stove, they found him, his back jammed under the bottom rail of the fence, his hooves kicking fitfully in vain attempts to find solid ground.
Philip brought the news. The girls and I, barely pausing to grab jackets and gloves, raced out to the horse corral. Sancho Panza heard us coming and make a last convulsive effort to rise, then lay still, only his heaving rib cage and rolling eyes showing his agitation.
Pauline knelt by her horse's head and burst into tears. "Mom! He can't get up! He's going to die!"
"No. He'll be fine. We'll get him up," I said. "Don't cry." Easy words. Pauline didn't believe me.
It didn't look good. Under the horse, the ground was frozen hard and covered with several inches of ice. It sloped down towards the fence, and the weight of the horse kept him wedged underneath. We would have to push or pull him up that slope, we being two small teenaged girls, two pre-teen boys, Marcos and myself. Marcos was sixteen.
We couldn't do it. Unless...
"Marcos, do you think we could dig through the ice under him? Maybe tip him a bit so he can get his feet down?"
We had two shovels. Marcos and James poked at the ice at Sancho's rear, gingerly, chipping off one tiny fragment of ice at a time. The horse lay quietly; he trusted us. I sent Philip and Betty to get hay to spread over the ice around Sancho's hooves. It would freeze there quickly and rough up the surface. It might help.
The boys broke through into dirt. It was harder going; the shovels scraped the cut surface, freeing a spoonful of frozen grit at a time. It seemed to take forever. Pauline was leaning on the fence, still sobbing. She was going to have frost-bitten cheeks.
Sancho Panza shifted suddenly and slid a few inches towards the boys. The fence was no longer touching him, except near the shoulders. James brought a two-by-four and we slid it between the horse and the fence. With three of us pulling on the other end, we managed to shift him a few inches more. Suddenly he lurched, kicked out his legs once, skidded and twisted. His hooves touched the ground, slipped on the ice. We hauled again on the two-by-four and he got his hooves down, rolled away from us, and stood up. Pauline stopped crying.
Sancho Panza stayed away from that fence for the rest of the winter.
Sancho Panza. Pauline had named him after Don Quixote's servant. Rocinante would have been more appropriate; Sancho had the cadaverous look of that unhappy steed. He was a quarter-century old, arthritic and cranky. Pauline doted on him.
The previous fall, Pauline had gone riding with a friend. While they saddled up, a bony brown horse came over, looking for a handout. Pauline rubbed his nose and gave him a taste of oats.
"What's his name?" she asked.
"I dunno. He's Grandpa's horse. Bear bait," Shauna said.
"Bear bait? Whaddya mean?"
"He's too old. Grandpa's going to take him up the Atnarko River and use him to attract bears. He's going to get himself a grizzly this year, he says."
The horse had been a trail horse for twenty years, Pauline learned. It was hard work, and he didn't have the stamina any more; he was useless. Nobody was going to give him stall room and hay over the winter. Not without some profit in it.
"But you can't just take him to the bears!"
"What if I bought him from your grandpa?"
A crazy idea, Shauna thought, but she agreed to talk to her grandfather. And I was persuadable. We had the barn, anyhow; a stall could be built in quite easily. And the corral had a good fence. And hay -- well, it couldn't be too expensive, could it? And the horse deserved a decent retirement; good grass, oats and rest under a shady tree.
Shauna's grandpa only wanted one hundred dollars, and would throw in an old saddle, to boot.
Pauline rode Sancho home after school the very next day. It was his last long haul.
We were complete novices. I had never owned any animal larger than a dog. I had stayed occasionally on farms where there were cows. I never got too close; I was afraid of being trampled on. But I had ridden horses a few times, years back. And we had good books: all the "vet" books by James Herriot, and a feminist back-to-the-landers journal. We would manage.
At the Co-op, we bought a bag of oats and something labelled "horse feed" which had molasses in it. Sancho needed fattening up. I asked around and found that everybody had already laid in their hay for the winter; nobody was selling any more. We scythed off our field by hand and managed to get together two bales.
In a small valley, word travels fast. A few days later, a woman I had never met dropped by my workplace to say that her neighbour had enough hay to tide me over -- if I was careful, and if spring came early. I had to borrow a truck to pick it up. And it was too expensive. Next year we would do better.
The stall Marcos and James made in the barn was perfect; sturdy and roomy and right in the centre away from the drafts, with the rabbits just above and the chickens' nests next door, to take advantage of the heat from the horse. The hay in the loft made the whole barn smell fresh and clean. We filled the rack with fresh hay and a bucket with water, led Sancho in and snicked his gate shut. And I stood in the entry way, listening to contented cluckings and chomping and the rattling of the ball valves in the rabbits' water bottles, feeling like a real farmer.
The first Saturday morning, Pauline saddled the horse and went riding. I stood at the living room window to watch her, a dark-haired slip of a girl in a bright pink sweater sitting on a brown horse, her hair and the horse, equally well-brushed, gleaming in the watery sunlight. She crossed the neighbour's pasture land and disappeared into the trees lining the river. A bit later, I caught a glimpse of her again, racing with the neighbour's horses. Sancho Panza was well in the lead. "See?" I thought, as if Shauna could hear me; "He's not too old, after all!"
The next time I went to the window, Pauline was in the pasture. Walking. Carrying the saddle. What now? I couldn't see the horse anywhere.
She came in soon, dripping wet and covered in slime, tears making clean paths down muddy cheeks.
"What happened? Did he buck you off?" I asked.
"He went to the duck pond and rolled in it! With me on his back! I couldn't stop him! I hate him!" She went into the bathroom and slammed the door.
She was more forgiving once she was warm and clean. Maybe she tired him out, she reasoned. Maybe she was expecting too much of him. She wouldn't let him run, next time. And she would keep him on the road, where there were no ponds.
"You've got to teach him who's boss," I told her. Advice I'd picked up from some book, no know-how attached.
And we soon learned who made the decisions; Sancho Panza did. He would walk on the road. Slowly. More slowly. He would not speed up. When he came to the bridge half a mile away, he would stop. Nothing could persuade him to step on the bridge.
But when his head was turned towards home, he ran. As fast as he could, with Pauline dragging at the reins and yelling, "Whoa!" When he got home, he stopped.
He tolerated Pauline on his back, sometimes Philip, who was small. But when we put two visiting cousins on the saddle at once, he immediately ran under the clothesline and knocked them off.
We all took care of him; he would accept food and friendly pats from anyone. But he loved Pauline. And she loved him.
Sancho Panza ate well; I had never realized just how much a horse can eat. I had to find more hay before the spring thaw. And even though we supplemented it with the feed and the oats, he continued to lose weight all winter. Not until the grass grew thick and luscious in his corral did he start to gain. By the end of that summer, he looked beautiful, and I was glad Pauline hadn't called him Rocinante.
But the second winter was hard on him. He lost weight again, stood for hours head down, looking dejected. His bones jutted out where there had been smooth muscle just months before. He shuffled from the barn to the corral and back as if he were towing a loaded skidder.
The vet came, and pronounced him in good health. "He's just old," he said. "And his arthritis bothers him with the cold. Nothing you can do." Nothing but watch him and suffer with him. Spring was coming.
"Soon, Sancho, soon. Just hold on a bit longer."
In the summer, I had a serious talk with Pauline. "Sancho Panza is fine now," I said, "but next winter he'll be miserable again. I don't think he should have to go through that."
"You mean put him down?"
"Better than dying by inches."
The euphemisms we use! Put him down! Like putting down a book that bores you. Putting down your fork after a meal. Nothing to it.
How do you put down a much-loved horse?
As I said, it is a small valley. A man from down-valley, a Finn, turned up on our doorstep. "I hear you want to have your horse shot. I'll do it for you."
There was a catch. He wanted the meat. It seemed awful; to let someone butcher your horse, your pet. But we were farmers; we ate our rabbits and chickens. The previous fall we had butchered a pig and two goats. Just because we didn't eat horsemeat didn't mean...
"Okay. You can have the horsemeat."
But it still seemed iniquitous.
In early November, when the ground was frozen, Anders came to do the job. He climbed up into the empty hayloft with his gun, and the boys brought the horse around underneath. (The girls and I were in the house, pretending to be busy.) Anders called, Sancho Panza looked up, and Anders shot him through the forehead. One shot. I heard it as I scrubbed at a polished stove in the kitchen. One. No second shot. So it had been clean, then. At least that was a relief.
They threw Sancho's rope over a beam, and dragged him up until his rear hooves cleared the ground, then gutted and skinned him. He would have to hang for a week, Anders said; he would come back then to butcher him and take him away. The boys dragged the skin and guts down to the farthest corner of the garden and buried them.
I didn't go out to the barn for weeks.
One last thing. Anders never came back. Two weeks later, when we enquired, we found he had left town.
The horse was turning green. Somehow, I never asked how, the boys lowered the carcass, and dragged it the half mile to the river, where they threw it in for the bears.
A few days later, a neighbour who kept his floatplane at a dock on the river found a slimy skinned carcass caught between the pontoons. We heard about it eventually, as we heard all the valley gossip. We feigned innocence.
Stories of Bella Coola
© Susannah Anderson, 2000