From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

A Mustang Night

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage.


A dull ache in her lower back awoke my grandma Violet one gray dawn in July of 1931. She lay quietly, listening to grandpa’s breathing next to her, wondering exactly what this pain was that she was feeling. She was sixteen years old then, grandpa George was eighteen and they were expecting their first baby. Thoughts of me were far in the future. They were living in grandma’s parents’ house in Melrose, Idaho, because Vi still needed her mama and daddy and it was the Depression. Life was hard in spite of their love for each other. A man worked all week for one sack of spuds, while the women worked just as hard trying to grow a garden, washing the clothes by hand, keeping the house up and raising all the kids.

Another ache, this one a little stronger, brought Vi back to the present. She turned on her side and brushed George’s arm softly. “Mornin,” she whispered to him, watching as his eyes squinted first, then opened slowly.

“Hmmm,” he groaned.

“I think today might be it,” she said as she moved closer to his ear.

He immediately turned to her and smiled, then placed his large hand over her stomach, like he’d done so many times to feel the little feet and hands flutter. “Does it hurt? Do you want me to stay home?”

She thought for a minute. ”No. Mama’s here and who knows when it’ll be. It’s best if you just go on to work with Daddy.”

George pulled on his worn boots to go out and do chores before breakfast. “I still need to break that horse your dad gave me,” he said almost every morning before he went out the door, this morning no exception. By the time he got home every night he was too tired to tend to the dun Mustang that decorated the pen outside their window with his gallant flaxen mane and tail. Before he’d moved up to Idaho, George broke horses for other people and before he married Violet, he’d told his father-in-law he missed that. When Erastus surprised him with the stallion as a wedding gift, George was speechless.

The three-year-old stallion they had named Dusty was unpredictable. Even though he looked gentle and would come up to the fence to be petted or to get a carrot, once you got inside the pen with him you’d better look out. This morning, as the sun began to break up over the distant mountains, George sensed an urgent restlessness in the horse. His neck arched, Dusty pranced around the pen, front legs high and quick and anxious. He looked at the worn leather tack that had traveled with him from California and walked over to feel the cracks beneath his calloused fingers. It was as if the stallion were taunting him, inviting him to take on the challenge and it was all George could do to turn around and walk back in the house.

At work his mind wandered first to Vi and the baby, then to the Mustang that had beckoned him that morning. Something distant and wild and disturbing pricked at his mind all day—something that he struggled to make sense of and hold on to. It was the Great Depression and grandpa George had no way of seeing into the future. All he felt was the harsh reality of the here and now and a weight of life that threatened to suffocate him. What scared him more than anything though, was his inability to tell Vi how he felt.

While George was at work, grandma Vi’s labor pains grew more intense every hour. She kept working until the pain finally dropped her onto the bed and by the time George arrived at home that evening, she was in the final hours before delivery. With her mother anxiously by her side, coaching her and soothing her, Violet finally pushed the little boy into her mother’s hands and wouldn’t lay back until she heard him cry. But the cry was weak and greatgrandma knew it. She wiped the boy clean and wrapped him tightly in a square of cotton, then handed her first grandson gently to Vi.

Grandpa was rushed into the room and the two named my small uncle Don George Lundvall. After he died later that night, grandma grew silent and George wrapped himself up even more in his work. Every day he walked by the corral trying not to look at the Mustang. Grandma Vi went about her chores systematically, trying to understand this new sense of self that had blossomed and suddenly died with her son’s last breath.

On the evening of the thirty-first day after his baby died and his wife quit talking to him, George walked out of the quiet house and straight to the barn where he grabbed the worn saddle and threw it up over the top rail of the corral fence. The Mustang snorted and backed away from the saddle, then spun on its haunches and ran straight to the corner, quivering.

“Whoa, boy.” George’s soothing voice echoed from the barn as he brushed the dust and hay from the saddle blanket. Then he walked to the garden and pulled two young carrots, stuffing one in his shirt pocket, snapping it shut and holding the other out for the Mustang as he unlatched the gate and walked to the corner of the pen.

The Mustang must have sensed George’s determination and decided to meet it head-on. Although he accepted the halter easily enough, that was the only part of the night that would be easy. The battle raged long into the night. Greatgrandpa Erastus walked out to the corral several times to bring water and to tell George to call it a night—to let the horse be for now. But George wouldn’t have it. The pain felt too good.

George needed to be beaten as much as he needed to win. He needed to hurt physically and to have a reason to scream and to let his tears flow where no one could see. He knew that the Mustang understood him like no one else did. Grandpa knew that horses, with their incredible sixth sense, were the best therapy in life.

Inside the house, Vi finally couldn’t resist going to the window to watch. She’d listened to her siblings as they’d run in and out of the house, screaming, “Whoa, did you see that?” too many times. As she watched her husband from the window, with each blow and each fall, she cried harder for George. Slowly she began to understand what she’d done by shutting him out. She knew that she would never be the same again, but watching George and Dusty through the pane glass window planted something new in her soul— some kind of hope. She began to plan what she would say to George the next morning.

Just as the Milky Way erupted in the night sky, the Mustang finally gave in. As the dust from the pen rose up into the wind and dissipated into the night sky, so the conflicts of the stallion and my grandpa mingled and disappeared until what was left was one man and one horse that co-existed—each stronger for what they had given up.

George felt Dusty’s muscles relax and his head lower and he knew that something major had taken place in the stallion’s mind. He stopped the horse and looked up at the sky and thanked God for helping him feel alive again. He jumped down and loosened the cinch, then walked to the front of the horse and rubbed its head. The horse took a deep breath and George pulled out the other carrot from his pocket and offered it as a peace offering to the Mustang. When he finally pulled off the saddle to walk back to the barn, the Mustang followed him closely. George collapsed in the hay and fell asleep.

When Violet woke up and saw George gone from the corral and the Mustang still sweaty, she knew he had fallen asleep in the barn. She felt different this morning. Freer. She decided not to think about her loss today, but to think about her and George and their future. She walked out and playfully kicked George in the leg. “Wake up!” she said teasingly. Grandpa sat up, surprised, as Grandma sat next to him in the hay. “Let’s talk,” she said, as she grabbed his hand and held it tight and let the new words flow.

A year later my mother was born. Unlike her brother Donald, she was a fighter. Although she was born with spina bifida, the little baby girl fought her way through life as hard as Grandpa fought the mustang stallion that night and Grandma poured all of the love for both babies into one. My mother, and her two sisters and brother, grew up riding the Mustang, when she didn’t have casts on her legs from the surgeries. They buried Dusty when he was twenty-three years old, near the grave of baby Don on the old homestead in Idaho.

Cheryl Dudley

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