This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the
Lonesome Dove television show,
AUTHOR'S NOTES: For those readers who may not know, Barbaro was a Thoroughbred racehorse, the winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. His performance there caused some to dub him a “superhorse” and there were great hopes that he would be the first in more than a quarter century to win the Triple Crown. Those hopes were tragically dashed when, only a few seconds into the Preakness in May of 2006, he mis-stepped and shattered several bones in his hind leg.
Determined to save him, his owners spared no expense, and his gallant struggle to overcome his injury captivated the American public. The ending to his story was almost a foregone conclusion, but his courage and his will to survive made us all hope for a miracle. He was euthanized on January 29, 2007. The title of my piece is a quote his owner, Gretchen Jackson, used in a press conference, and which moved me to tears.
A profound “thank you” to Tieranny, for her beautiful
artwork, which expresses more than my poor words ever could.
Warning: Includes animal death.
Grief Is the Price We Pay for Love
For Barbaro … and all the wonderful animals who grace our lives for too brief a time.
Clay Mosby was not a man who accepted defeat easily, but he also prided himself on being a realist. And the reality of the situation could no longer be denied…the horse was dying. The gelding resisted their persistent efforts and coaxing, remaining prone in the straw, his only response a prolonged groan. His bay-and-white coat was darkened with sweat, the red patches gleaming like blood in the lanterns’ glow. Clay stroked the white blaze and murmured soothingly, his eyes lifting to meet those of the two men across from him. In their faces he read the same weary resignation, and nodded.
"Well…." His throat was unbearably tight, and he had to force the rest of the words. "I’ll take the boy on up to the house then come back –"
"No need." Call jerked his head toward his coat and discarded gunbelt. "I can see to it." When Clay merely stared, he added, "Might make it some easier on the boy, if he don’t blame you."
"Of course." Clay wasn’t sure if his delayed response was due to shock, or the fact that he hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours. He held out his hand and Call clasped it briefly. "Thank you. I’m sorry for draggin’ you out here in the middle of the night…."
"Man shouldn’t apologize for doin’ whatever he can to help his boy." Call turned his attention back to the horse, rubbing the sleek neck. "He’s a fine animal. Damn shame we can’t save him."
If anyone had told Clay ten years ago that he and Newt Call would be having a civilized conversation, let alone working side-by-side, he would’ve had them committed to the nearest asylum. The contrast between the feral, unwashed bounty hunter and the quiet, capable man beside him was startling, to say the least. Fatherhood was a miraculous thing indeed, he mused, as he pushed himself to his feet and scrubbed at his gritty eyes. And terrifying, and heartbreaking….
Oh Lord, how am I going to get through this? The lesson’s too hard, he’s just a little boy….
Steeling himself, he walked across the stall to the blanket-wrapped form curled up in the far corner. He knelt and laid a hand on his son’s back. "Robert Lee," he said softly. The boy sighed but didn’t wake; having pushed past the point of exhaustion, he’d finally collapsed a couple of hours ago, and Clay had settled him here, out of harm’s way.
How easy, the cowardly little voice in his brain whispered, how easy it would be to simply carry him up to the house, and tuck him into bed, and deal with all of this later.…Instead, he gave him a gentle shake and repeated his name.
The answer was another sleepy sigh. "Daddy?"
"Wake up, son." Robert Lee rolled onto his back and opened his eyes, the blue hazy and unfocussed. When Clay pushed the tangle of dark curls away from the small forehead, he was rewarded with a smile of such drowsy sweetness, his heart clenched painfully in his chest. He pulled in a deep breath and steadied his voice. "Hey there, sleepyhead."
Behind them, Call and Reilly carried on a hushed conversation. The horse groaned again, and the sound roused Robert Lee to instant alertness. "Is Cheyenne all right, Daddy?" He yawned and sat up, rubbing his eyes. "Is it time for another poultice?"
Clay grasped the slender shoulders in both hands. "No…son, you need to listen to me, now." Robert Lee cocked his head, wariness invading his eyes, which fixed on Clay’s face. "Son, he’s down. When a horse goes down and won’t get up –"
"It’s okay," Robert Lee said quickly. "Unbob is building a ‘traption. It’ll hold Cheyenne up and then –"
Giving him a slight shake, Clay went on as if he hadn’t spoken. "It’s over, son. I’m sorry but we’ve done all we can do."
"No, Daddy!" Robert Lee stiffened and tried to pull away. "Uncle Ephraim wired a horse doctor and he’s gonna send some medicine and, and…." Unable to escape from his father’s grasp or the truth he saw reflected in his steady gaze, he panicked. "No, Daddy. NO!"
Clay drew him close and just held on, amazed by the eight-year-old’s wiry strength. Mercifully, the struggle was brief, quickly disintegrating into ragged sobbing and he shut his own eyes, ready to cry himself. He heard the rustle of approaching footsteps, then felt a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he met Reilly’s sorrowful gaze. The groom laid his other work-roughened hand on Robert Lee’s head.
"There now, laddie." The Irish brogue was soft and comforting. "We’ve fought the good fight, we have. But sometimes, loving means letting go. T’will be a kindness, with Himself suffering so."
Robert Lee pushed back, glancing first at Reilly, then his father. His chin trembled. "W-will it hurt?"
Shaking his head firmly, Clay cradled the flushed little face in his hand, his thumb stroking away the still-falling tears. "You ready to say goodbye now?" he asked huskily. The boy nodded, swiping his sleeve across his eyes and Clay let him go. He accepted Reilly’s hand up and the two of them followed. Call had been sitting at the gelding’s head, but he moved back, giving Robert Lee access.
They maintained a respectful silence, watching as his son straightened the coarse mane, then laid his cheek against the warm neck for a long moment, inhaling deeply. Clay knew he would never forget that unique scent – sweat and straw, wind and grass, manure and leather - that was Cheyenne’s alone. Robert Lee whispered something in the horse’s ear, before shifting around to look him in the eye. As he stroked the soft nose, the gelding whickered, the first non-distressed sound Clay had heard from him all night, and it brought a brief smile to the boy’s face. Leaning forward, he pressed his forehead against the horse’s, and they remained that way until Clay saw his son’s back begin to heave.
Robert Lee had recently declared that he was too old for hugs and kisses, especially from his father, but there was no hint of resistance when Clay bent and gathered him up into his arms. The thin limbs wrapped around his neck and waist, and the boy’s head nestled into the curve of his shoulder. Clay settled him more securely then shared a speaking glance with Reilly. His gaze moved next to Call, and he mouthed a silent "thank you." The other man nodded, and Clay left the stable.
The pre-dawn air still held a chill, and he cursed himself for not grabbing the blanket, or at least his coat, when Robert Lee shivered. Holding him closer, he strode briskly up the path to the house, eager to get them both inside. When he got to the back porch steps, the door swung open, and Mattie came out to meet them, a shawl thrown hastily over her nightgown, her feet bare. There was just enough light for them to see each other, but she heard the sound of their son’s weeping and compassion flooded her eyes.
"Oh, sweet boy," she murmured, pulling off the shawl and reaching up to tuck it around him. Then she slid in under Clay’s arm and drew them both into a tight embrace.
The single gunshot that shattered the morning seemed to echo forever.
Please let me know if you appreciated the story.
Laura J. Barnette
February 7, 2007