A FINAL TEXAS SUNSET

A FINAL TEXAS SUNSET

From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

A Final Texas Sunset

I will welcome happiness as it enlarges my heart; yet I will endure sadness for it opens my soul. I will acknowledge rewards for they are my due; yet I will welcome obstacles for they are my challenge.

Og Mandino

I looked down the list of appointments, mentally checking off items I would need for each farm visit. Being a horse vet meant long hours traveling down country roads, and I couldn’t afford to circle back for forgotten supplies.

The last appointment caught my eye: “Mrs. Deerfield—old horse. 1 mile past Pete’s grocery, turn right on county road 327, then take third road to left. Look for sign.”

My receptionist was good about giving me landmarks to follow. Most of my clients were backyard horse owners, with three to five acre ranchettes located in outlying communities. It was easy to make a wrong turn and find myself in the middle of nowhere and worse, behind schedule!

I placed the list inside my metal clipboard, grabbed my medical bag and headed for the practice truck. The old Chevy sat with a perpetual rear hunch due to the large fiberglass veterinary box inserted in its bed.

As I drove my rounds, I marveled at the splashes of roadside color from the bluebonnets and other wildflowers heralding the spring season in Texas. My calls were routine, mostly vaccinations, a few deworming and a couple of colt castrations. When I drove past Pete’s grocery and turned onto 327, it was 5:00 p.m. and the sun squatted on the horizon. Sunsets in Texas can be beautiful; this one was going to be spectacular.

A wrought iron sign marked the entrance to the Deerfield residence. An avid gardener, I admired the neatly mowed lawn framing the graveled drive, its deep green punctuated with occasional, well-tended flowerbeds. The small frame house at the end of the drive was old but as lovingly cared for as the entrance. A huge pink climbing rosebush framed the screened porch door. Standing on the steps was an elderly, white-haired lady with skin pinched and lined by long hours in the sun.

As she approached my truck, I saw her eyes were a vivid blue, matching the spring sky. She moved slowly, her back bent slightly with age.

“Good afternoon. You must be Dr. Godfrey.” A warm smile deepened the wrinkles around her eyes. She was dressed in denim, a pair of battered work boots on her feet.

“Yes, I’m Dr. Godfrey. I’ve come about your horse. He’s not doing well?” I pulled my bag from the seat and closed the truck door.

“No, Buck isn’t doing well and I’m worried about him. He’s getting on in years, just like me.” She smiled again, then turned and began walking toward the barn behind the house.

“How old is Buck, Mrs. Deerfield?” I admired the profusion of flowers in the manicured beds next to the house.

“Oh, he must be at least forty-five by now.” She replied matter-of-factly.

“Forty-five!” I tried not to let my voice betray my shock, but a 45-year-old horse was the equivalent of a 135-year-old person!

“Yes, I’m fairly sure of his age. He was a yearling when I bought him for my late husband. Earl used to like to rodeo, so I gave him Buck as a tenth anniversary gift.” She stopped to pick a weed from one of the flowerbeds.

“We were married fifty-four years before Earl passed away this fall, so I figure that would make Buck about forty-five. He hasn’t been the same since Earl died.”

As we approached the barn, I noticed the care that had been lavished on the old building. There was some paint peeling but the structure looked solid and the roof was new. Climbing roses, this time in shades of brilliant red, covered both sides of the door. In a stall toward the rear stood my patient, a bay Quarter Horse gelding. I looked over the stall door and could see Mrs. Deerfield’s claim about Buck’s age was accurate. The years showed in the white around his muzzle and in the deep sway of his back. He stood with one rear leg cocked and his head drooping toward the floor, fast asleep in the typical resting position of horses.

“Buck, we have a visitor.” Mrs. Deerfield’s voice was warm with affection as she unlatched the stall door.

“Buck doesn’t hear well. He startles if I come up on him too quickly, so I try to make some noise before I walk in his stall.” With that, the elderly woman picked up a small metal can and rattled it gently against the door.

Buck’s head flew up and he swayed sideways as he pricked his ears toward the sound. Mrs. Deerfield entered the stall, carefully picking her way across the straw.

“He wouldn’t hurt a fly, but I have to be careful nowadays. It’s just him and me living here and if I fall and hurt myself, no one would know for hours. And if I get hurt, who’d take care of Buck?” She drew a halter around his head and, with measured steps, began walking him toward the door.

“Mrs. Deerfield, let me take him.” I was uneasy at the sight of the frail woman handling the unsteady horse. I took the lead rope and petted the old fellow’s head while she exited the stall, then carefully guided Buck out the barn door into the sunshine.

The bright light revealed even more signs of ageing, as well as a disturbingly swollen abdomen. The sockets above Buck’s eyes were deep and the skin on his face stretched tautly over the bones. His ribs were showing, despite the swollen belly and his hair coat had a dull, lifeless look to it. I shookmy thermometer and raising his tail, gently inserted it.

“As I told you, Doctor, Buck hasn’t been the same since Earl died, but it’s gotten worse over the last month. He’s not cleaning up his feed and won’t even touch his hay. I’m afraid he might be wormy. Earl used to worm him regularly, but I haven’t kept up with it very well.”

I withdrew the thermometer and observed the reading, slightly below normal. I placed my stethoscope against Buck’s chest. His outward calm was deceptive. Buck’s heart rate was almost eighty beats per minute, much faster than I’d expect from a horse at rest. I raised his upper lip and saw the angled, worn teeth typical for his advanced age. His gums were a dark, muddy color instead of pink and when I pushed my thumb against them, it was several seconds before his circulation restored the area with blood.

The diagnosis was not good. Buck’s heart was failing and there was a strong probability his kidneys and liver were failing as well. He had beaten the odds, living twice the normal life expectancy for a horse; but his time was running out.

I glanced across at the old woman and took a deep breath. This was one part of my job I truly hated. “Mrs. Deerfield, Buck’s condition is much worse than you think. His heart is failing and I’m concerned his other organs are shutting down as well.”

Tears welled up in the old lady’s eyes and slid down her wrinkled cheeks. Her hand, knobby and twisted from arthritis, lovingly stroked the old horse’s neck.

“I suspect he just really misses Earl and wants to be with him. They were inseparable.” Closing her eyes, she continued to stroke the old horse. I suspected she was remembering happier times with Earl and Buck. For several moments, we stood silently in the late afternoon sunshine.

Finally, she turned to me, drying her eyes on a lace-edged handkerchief she’d drawn from her pocket.

“Well, I don’t want Buck to suffer. Earl would never forgive me if I let that happen.” She paused and then spoke so quietly I barely heard, “Do you think it’s best to put him down?”

I rubbed Buck’s head. “I’m afraid there is nothing else I can do for him. As you said, we don’t want him to suffer. It would be kinder to put him down before he gets much worse.”

She leaned her head against Buck’s neck as more tears moistened her eyes.

“My husband died of cancer, Dr. Godfrey. He lived for about four months after the doctors told us the diagnosis and tried to get his affairs in order as best he could. Before he died, he had an old friend and neighbor of ours dig a place by that tree to bury Buck when the time came.” She raised her head and pointed toward a lone oak tree in the far corner of the pasture. “I’d always hoped Buck would die naturally.” The next words came as a soft whisper, “Can you do it now?”

I nodded and walked slowly back to my truck, giving Mrs. Deerfield and Buck a few final moments alone. After filling a syringe with the euthanasia solution, I placed it in my pocket and retraced my steps.

When I reached Mrs. Deerfield, she handed me the lead rope. “I hope you don’t mind if I go inside while you do it, Dr. Godfrey. I’ve said my good-byes and I don’t think I could . . .” she glanced tearfully toward the pasture, her meaning clear. “Our neighbor should be home before long. He’ll come over with his tractor to finish burying him if you’ll just put him down near that tree.” I nodded, unable to speak as I grappled with my own emotions. She smiled, patted my arm in thanks, then turned and moved slowly toward the house, her back more bent with age than when I’d arrived.

I waited until she’d closed the back door, then gently aroused the old horse and walked him to the oak tree. Near it was a large piece of plywood covering a deep pit. I stood Buck near the grave and gently inserted the needle into his neck vein. I attached the syringe, carefully injected the solution, then backed to the end of the lead rope as Buck began to sway from the drug’s effect. His knees buckled and he sank to the ground. In less than a minute, he was gone. Tears moistened my eyes as I knelt beside his head and gently closed his eyelids. I placed my stethoscope against his chest and listened to the silence. After gathering my things, I returned slowly to my truck. Opening the door, I found a small bouquet of pink roses lying on the seat.

The sunset was as spectacular as I had imagined; long fingers of crimson, purple and gold reaching out across the horizon. The wind had picked up and clouds raced along like yearling colts in a pasture. Looking skyward, I couldn’t help but feel somewhere up there an old cowboy named Earl had just been reunited with his best friend.

Jeanna C. Godfrey, D.V.M.

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