For some reason, the mind-movie-maker in my head has fashioned a couple of old farmers, standing together at a fenceline, chewing straw, their hands shoved deep in their overall pockets. They’re looking out over a field and at the one lonesome workhorse in the pasture.
“He don’t look good,” one says.
“Nope,” from the other.
“Looks like the last one did before you put him down.”
“You gonna put’im out of his misery?” Misery sounds like miz-ree.
“Not yet. Johnny’d cry. I hate to see that boy cry.”
Johnny is running now across the pasture, a beagle yelping at his heels. They stop at the old horse and feed it an apple.
“It’s cruel, you know.”
“I know. But I don’t know what’s worse. Being cruel to the horse or being cruel to Johnny.”
The farmers won’t talk again on this day. They’ll walk away from each other like the light from the horizon. One will go home and tell his wife how his old friend is getting too soft. The other will stand on his porch, blow a loud whistle across the pasture, and watch his grandson run through the field and back to the old farmhouse.
The boy will be out of breath, as will the beagle that ran at his heels all the way back. Both will sit at the foot of the old farmhouse’s porch steps and look up at the old man in the overalls.
“Grandma made biscuits.”
“I know,” the boy will say. “She told me she would. I want to give one to Buddy.” Buddy is the dog. “He’s hungry.”
“That dog ain’t hungry. It eats more than you do.”
“Yeah.” The boy will get quiet and looking back at the fading light on the edge of the pasture.
“Come on in and wash up.”
“Grandpa?” The boy’s eyes will look wet.
The old man won’t say anything. He thinks he already knows what the boy is thinking. The sun looks just like it did the day his daddy died. Purple on its edges, deep orange in the middle, dropping fast over amber foothills.
“Rocky looks sick.”
The old man knows that’s what the boy has been calling the horse. He watched the boy take rocks from the creek and match them to the color of the old horse’s hair.
“He’s old, son.”
The boy won’t move his eyes from the field until the outline of the sun is gone. His grandfather will stand there, shifting his eyes from the both to the field. When the dog gets up and wanders toward the smell of biscuits, the boy will turn to the old man and speak.
“You know, Grandpa, we should put Rocky down.”
That’s when something will happen that the old man didn’t expect. The corners of his eyes will get damp. He will stand and wonder how he got so old as to watch everything die before him. He’ll see his grandson in a new suit, standing at his father’s grave, the beagle standing beside him, his dog’s eyes looking just as solemn.
After a couple of minutes he will realize he’s been nodding, silently affirming the boy’s decision. In a moment, he’ll be startled by the dog walking back onto the porch, a biscuit in his jaws.
In spite of himself, the old man will look down at the beagle and smile.
“We’ll see about Rocky tomorrow, son. Come in and have dinner.”
Together, with the dog on their heels dropping biscuit crumbs on the wood, the old man and the young man will walk into the old farm house, the last light of the day painting their backs with the shadow of an old horse in the pasture.