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Killer Horses

Before his birth, Ed Sniece's mother galloped her steed down the cinder traces of the old railroad bed parallel to the river. Her favorite bonnet usually dislodged no farther west than the Macdonald ranch. Like as not on her return she'd find it atop a fence post, the Macdonald brothers polite, yet too shy of her or the stallion to remain in sight.

She died young but the ancient equine, now past the remarkable age of fifty, grazed in Ed's gated pasture, surrounded by apple trees. Rhode Island Greenings, Maiden Blush, and Northern Spy pruned so that most of the lowest branches rose above the horse's head... most.

Of a late afternoon, like as not, Ed stepped out through the screen door to the roofed back porch, gathered an armload of foot-long redwood, from logs whose grain was not true enough to split into posts or pickets but straight enough for kindling. He sat himself on the porch steps alongside a pair of stacked chunks of oak that served as a two-tiered chopping block.

It might be mid-summer, autumn, or a false spring, no matter, splitting kindling ran its ritual course. Soon as the hatchet cut through wood a time or two, his wife might call from inside the kitchen, “How much kindling do we need.” It wasn't a question, just her part of the ritual. “There's a trunk full already.”

“Well, let's fill the rest of the elephant,” Ed replied. She'd heard it enough not to laugh or even giggle.

With his gloved left hand and right bare around the hatchet handle, Ed slivered the redwood. His goal: foot long strips narrow as a matchstick; a frown whenever a skinny sliver broke into a stub. The rise and fall of the hatchet blade fell into a rhythm at times, a rhythm so pronounced Ed's thoughts split as easily as the wood. 

At times like these Ed recalled how the big horse grew so gentle that he could toddle and crawl between the pasture's fir rails then nap in the shade of the steed's grand belly. The huge equine stood stock still for minutes, eventually sidestepping away when an alarmed adult discovered the scene... Did he truly remember or had he been told so many times it felt like a real memory?

Ed slivered two dozen toothpick-thin pieces of kindling, added them to his pile on the porch step with his gloved hand, then embarked on another chunk of redwood, splitting it into quarters, eighths, sixteenths, and so on. “You know, not all horses are as nice as Ma's.” He often engaged in these outdoor-indoor conversations with his wife. Sometimes she participated, sometimes she ignored him.

“That hunting trip in Modoc when Uncle John's false teeth froze in the cup he soaked them in overnight, he told about a racehorse who started nipping his stable boys then took bites out of their forearms.”

Ed stopped talking but continued splitting. One never knew what would spark her attention. Though he heard her in the kitchen, the Mrs. did not speak.

“He was a California horse.” Ed went on. “Won a big stakes race down around Los Angle-ese in the nineteen-oughts.”

“Kercheval,” rang out through the kitchen screen door. “I was on that trip too, if you remember. Who do you think defrosted that cup and those teeth over the campfire.”

Of course, John wasn't uncle to either of them, but a Great Uncle to Ed, though no one ever referred to him beyond the first floor in the family tree house. “That's right, Kercheval,” Ed said, “After a while, the critter got so bad he bit off a lady's bonnet, most of her hair piled under it, and a good deal of her scalp to boot.”

Ed turned from his kindling long enough to ask over his shoulder, “Did they hang him?”

Nothing sizzled but Ed could smell supper on the stove. The Mrs. spoke up. “I believe they had electrocutions by then.”

“He had a full court hearing,” Ed said. “Twelve good men and true.”

“Would've fared better with a dozen horse jury,” the Mrs. responded.

It remained unsaid, yet obvious, between the two of them that Uncle John had shot and killed a man on the trail to Little Lake, and his father's horse took the blame. Unlike Kercheval, Grandfather Robertson's horse was found not guilty by a jury of humans. And, of course, “Grandfather Robertson” was Ed's Great-grandfather, but no one of their generation bothered with the extra grand.

Ed gathered an armload of kindling, stood, and walked to the far end of the porch where an old cracker barrel rested. It doubled as one of the many repositories for his kindling. The Mrs. called out, “You suppose it was the color of the bonnet that prompted Kercheval to chomp the woman half to death?”

“No, I do not.”

“Better feed Hercules his 'falfa.”

Ed walked to the barn. A panoply of ivy armored the structure's side wall, expanding its kingdom to forge cracks in the shingled roof. High above, thrush sang their evening hymn from conifer pews.

He tugged a sheet of alfalfa and an extra half of hay then made his way to the pasture fence while wrens heralded the end of day in tune.

Hercules hadn't galloped in years, but the ancient equine maintained his stately gait in a short prance to meet the man. Ed tore off clumps of hay first, holding back the alfalfa as dessert. For a moment he wondered who would win the bird song. Was it a competition or an avian round?

Hercules nibbled and chewed, as was his wont, though he seldom, if ever, inadvertently bit. Ed pondered, as was his wont.

His father had told him once, during a lull at Uncle John's fishing hole, about two fellows who sailed their boat, day by day, with the intent of circumnavigating Clear Lake. They fished near locales like Rattlesnake Island then camped along the shore. And so they made their way from spot to spot until one day at dusk, they steered their craft near Long Tulle Point. Still some distance from shore, a noise shriller than a wicked wind stood the hairs up on their respective necks. The crack of breaking branches mingled with blood-curdling screams. Then the sound of hooves, a dozen or more maddening their way through willows. Out of the shore shrubs, panting and spitting froth and blood, a lone mare sprinted into the lake's shallows, shrieking for help from God or man. Then the herd, pounding the grasses into sand, leaped after the mare into the water. They kicked hooves at her head from every angle. Knocking her sideways, some of them bit at her neck, her flank, and when she flailed they bit at her legs and chomped her neck until they pushed her under.

The two sailors tacked their boat, trying to get to the mare, but by the time they reached her, the blood on the surface of the lake felt more alive than the floating corpse. The killer herd, having rendered judgment and execution, waded ashore, trampled more willows, and snorted triumphant whistles as they disappeared into shadowy thickets of brush.

“1936,” Ed said aloud. Hercules nudged him gently for the rest of the alfalfa.

He stroked the beast's forehead then both sides of his silver neck. The horse was one of the last tangible connections to his mother. “Maybe tomorrow, we'll take a walk along the river road. No saddle, just the two of us. See if you can break a sweat.”

Ed patted Hercules once more. “Are you coming in, or should I start without you.” Her voice seemed sharp. Or was it shrill?

Striding toward the house he remembered the men in the sail boat. Strangers, one stemmed from Colusa his father had said. They never knew if that herd ran wild or escaped from a ranch on a mission to mete out their brand of justice... Brand... They should have looked for brands.

“Are you comin', sweet fool. I might just start in on your piece of pie before my greens.”

Often he would bring the hatchet down hard into the chopping block to signify the end of the chore, or to let off steam. This particular evening, he laid it quietly on its side.

In two strides he was up the porch steps with a hand on the screen door handle. He noticed he still had the weathered work glove on his left hand. Once it had been cowhide tan. Now it had turned dirt-streaked brown and yellow. He pulled the door open, smiled, and called her by name. “Whatever became of that old bonnet?” 

• Kercheval wins the Burns Handicap, see numerous publications including the San Francisco Examiner, January 27, 1907, page 29.

• Kercheval's attacks on humans and trial recounted in the Dade County Times, August 27, 1936

• Robertson “shooting horse” from Mendocino History Exposed, pages 50-52.

• Killer horses of Clear Lake noted in the Ukiah Republican Press, April 15, 1936, page 1.

One Comment

  1. George Hollister March 26, 2024

    Great writing, Malcolm.

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