My horse Murphy spent the night at the Doc Riddle’s place down on Hopewell Road, and I needed to get him home before I was due in the tack store at 9. I’d ridden him over last night when I discovered his cornea had a little ulcer on it. I’d grown spooky about ulcers after watching a few take off and steal the sight from a couple of really nice horses. Doc looked at the eye, and gave me a tube of ophthalmic antibiotic ointment and some atropine. Since dark had long since taken over, he said I could leave Murphy in one of their stalls and pick him up the next morning. He gave me a ride home in his battered green Jeep Cherokee, his vet supplies rattling around in back.
I lived just up the road from my barn, but Doc Riddle’s Canvasback Farms was over two miles away. The next morning, I hopped a ride from my roommate Evan on his way to work at the oil company. His old pickup truck was cold, and the fog just took your breath away. We could barely see ten feet in front of us. I felt a little nervous about my ride. Maybe I should wait until this afternoon, but as nice as Doc was, he was still a business man. He’s charge me a day’s worth of board if I didn’t get Murphy out early, and I just didn’t have the cash to spare.
Evan’s truck rattled away up the driveway. I walked through the early morning gloom, hardly able to see the sun peeking up over the bare bean field to the east. I slid open the barn door and Murphy’s big red face popped over his stall door as I came in.
“Hey buddy. How was your sleepover?” He tossed his head, and reached for the peppermint I took out of my pocket. My saddle and the rest of my tack sat on the rack where I’d left it last night. I unlatched the stall door and walked in. Murphy rubbed his face against my shoulder, then pinned his ears and made a pass at me with curled lips.
“Don’t be a jerk man. We’re going.” I ran the soft black horsehair brush over his shoulder and back. He lifted a warning back foot, and I slapped his rump. “You’re such a crab Murph. Chill out.” Reaching in to my back pocket, I took out a pick and cleaned his feet. I looked at my watch and sighed. “We gotta go or I’m gonna be late.”
I tossed my saddle pad and sheepskin half pad onto Murphy’s back, then the saddle. I clipped on his breast collar, and tightened the girth. WHAM! An angry hoof lashed out and kicked the stall wall. I loved him, but Murphy was your typical red head: opinionated and not afraid to make a point. I picked up the bridle but the cold moisture from the fog had made the bit uncomfortably chilly. I held it in my hands to warm it. Murphy lifted his head and settled his chin on my shoulder, slowly increasing the weight until my knees nearly buckled. “Aren’t you in a mood today. I ought to put this bit in your mouth and let you suffer.” He sneezed.
With now cold hands, I put the bridle on, and Murphy willingly gobbled the warm bit into his mouth. I tossed a cooler over his back and led him out of the stall. One of the grooms followed me to the mounting block, an old cottonwood stump, out into the foggy morning. “Es muy bromoso Senorita. Cuidado.”
“Oh si amigo. Gracias.” I tightened the girth and slid my stirrups down. The leathers slapped against the smooth grain of the saddle flap. The groom held Murphy’s reins and the opposite stirrup as I mounted. I pulled the front half of the cooler around my legs leaving the back to cover Murphy’s rump. He sidled forward as the groom released the reins. “Adios Senorita! Cuidado!”
I waved as Murphy set out up the paved driveway, his hoofbeats sounding close in the fog. I pulled up at Hopewell Road, listening closely for cars. I’d never see them in the thick gloom. With a quick squeeze of my calves, Murphy swung up into a trot to cross the street. He bounded up the grassy berm and into the harvested bean field just east of Canvasback Farm.
I stopped him in dismay. How could I get home in this stuff? I could barely see the level ground of the field, let alone the treeline across the way. The pale disc of the sun was dimly visible, but just then another thick cloud ran low across the horizon, blocking out the one directional marker I had. I didn’t want to follow Hopewell. The cars would never see me, making the trip hideously dangerous. I looked down at Murphy. His long neck stretched out before me. His ears pricked forward and he raised one hoof to impatiently paw the dirt in front of us. He knew. He knew the way home without seeing it.
“Alright. I’m trusting you man. Get us home.” I loosened the reins to the buckle and let him set off at a forward walk.
At first the motion disoriented me. I floated along in the clouds, the only solid sensation the comforting feel of Murphy walking confidently beneath me. I felt dizzy. But when I looked down, the long red neck before me gave me balance. Beads of moisture gathered in his mane, making him look dusty. His ears stayed forward, and his stride never wavered. I knew the lay of the land from memory, but I couldn’t orient where we were. Suddenly, a grassy irrigation ditch appeared before us, and Murphy headed to his left. Ah, a landmark. I knew the bridge was north of Canvasback, and yes! There it was! We crossed the dirt bridge and continued. I knew the trail along the woods wasn’t too far away.
Hounds baying sounded to my right. I knew the hunt ran southeast of Canvasback, but they should be well over five miles away. The muffling clouds hovering close to the ground conducted sound much better than air due to the heavy moisture. It was disconcerting being out here without a guide, but Murphy never wavered.
Beads of fog gathered on my eyelashes and I raised my gloved hand to wipe my eyes. I turned around and glanced at the dark green wool of the cooler draped over Murphy. A grey film of dew covered it, and rivulets had begun to trace downward though not a drop of rain fell.
Suddenly Murphy turned again to the left, jolting me back around in the saddle. We’d hit the trail. I knew we’d have to enter the woods and this made me nervous. Would I be able to see the tree branches, or would they swipe me from the saddle? Sure enough, Murphy turned to the right into the trees. The leaves had almost all fallen and the bare reaching limbs stretched above us. I could see a little further, but still not to the creek I knew ran through the middle of this patch of forest. I couldn’t get around it without going far out of my way and into the road. My heart beat a little faster. This was the part of the journey I worried about the most.
Here in the woods, I could hear the foggy moisture dripping into the leaf litter. My fleece jacket had begun to leak, and I shivered in the chill air. Murphy shook his head as a drip made it into his ear, and water flew from his body as if he’d just taken a swim. He picked up the pace, and instinctively, I gathered myself. I didn’t want to interfere with what only he could see, so instead of picking up my reins, I grabbed a handful of mane. Sure enough, the wide gap of the creek appeared from the mist. With two bold canter strides, Murphy collected himself and jumped across the narrowest part of the creek. A twig smacked off my cheek, and from the sting, I was pretty sure the trickle down my face was blood.
As I leaned down to wipe my face, Murphy cantered out into the clearing. In front of us, the blessed pasture fence stretched to the right. A welcoming chorus of neighs reached us as the herd, who must have heard us coming through the woods, galloped up the greet us. I knew where we were now, and I let Murphy trot around the southern edge of the pasture and up to the barn. I dismounted as the barn owner walked out. “I wasn’t sure you were going to make it through all this fog.”
“Me either. Thank God Murphy knew the way home!” I unwrapped another peppermint and Murphy’s soft lips took it from my palm.
“You should have known he would. I bet he heard me pour the grain all the way over at Canvasback.”
“Probably. You can’t keep this guy from his breakfast. Still, he never faltered, even at the creek jump.” Suddenly, the sun burned through the fog, lighting up the whole of the pasture with a reverential light.
“I guess when you can’t trust your eyes, horse sense is the next best thing.”