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Riding Wildfire
by Gwynn Morgan

Duncan Wilcox was tired. Was that why they called them “rest homes”? But people didn’t use that term anymore, did they? Nowadays it was some polite delicate phrase like convalescent center or … The errant thought slipped away. He shut his eyes. That almost made the sights, scents and sounds telling him where he was go away too. It was not a place he wanted to be, yet in some ways it was better than staying at Dave’s house with Dave and his wife fussing around him constantly.

He relaxed, feeling as if the weight of his body sank through the mattress beneath him. He wouldn’t have to wait too much longer. He was sure of that. He’d fought long and hard with Dave over it.  Finally he had won, though.

The “do not resuscitate” signs posted conspicuously around the soft green room proclaimed his wishes. Eighty five years was long enough. There had been some good years among the harsher ones, successes to balance the regrets and mistakes he now could see so clearly but he was ready to go.

Floating somewhere between awake and asleep, he drifted back into the distant past. He saw the rolling green hills around the Pennsylvania farm where he’d grown up, adopted son of Joshua and Esther Wilcox. There were times he had resented not knowing where he came from, who his real folks had been, but he could not have chosen better than the parents who had claimed him. They were long gone yet he still missed Papa Josh‘s gentle wisdom, Mama Esther’s love, shown mainly with her cooking. He could almost see them, hear their voices.

Growing up, going to high school and Anabelle: blonde, slender, vivacious and so fascinating he could hardly concentrate on anything else. She’d been his first love. When things began to get serious, he had to tell her the Wilcoxes were not his real parents. He had no idea who had given him life. She had claimed it didn’t matter.

Then his senior year, The War started. He quit school to enlist. He’d barely landed in Europe when her letter came. The Dear John letter let him know she’d be married long before he came back. Her choice was a boy a couple of years older, the son of the town’s banker who had gone off to Princeton in accordance with family tradition instead of into the army. He could no longer see her face, just a vague blur of pink cheeks, lush lips and a cloud of golden hair. The pain had faded to the merest shadow of dull ache. There were newer ones now, pains both harsher and keener.

 When he finally got home from his hitch in the Army, he’d become a man, no longer a boy. Joshua was a shrunken shell of himself, brought down by a stroke. Duncan found he did not want to stay there.  A restless urge to reach beyond the quiet, staid and familiar was itching his feet and nibbling at his soul.

Those next years had been good yet lonely. Finally his travels had taken him far to the southwest. In the vast empty spaces, the heart-stopping sunsets, the eerie, lonely wails of coyotes at night and the lingering traces of the old west, he found a sense of homecoming. The region called to something he had never known existed within him.
As roots began to develop, they brought an urge to settle down and start a family.

Then Mary Catharine appeared. She said she was French and a bit of Spanish, dark to his fairness, strictly raised and devoted to her Catholic faith. She had almost gone into a convent but something had stopped her, she said. Had it been to wait for him?  In the back of his mind a warning niggled that they were not well suited, but she was there and it was time. After a long year of marriage, stiff with adjustments and efforts to become someone else, the first baby came. It was a girl and Cathie named her Mignon Esther. 

He was now working construction, a trade that seemed comfortable to him. He enjoyed whatever the current job called for whether it was framing the houses springing up in droves as the post war era brought many new people to the southwest or building forms for the bridges and guard rails as the new freeways began to sprout. The work took him from home often, sometimes for weeks on end. The distance was probably the only thing that saved his marriage. On one of the times he was home, the second child was conceived. That one was David Duncan.

Looking back, the son Dave had grown to be was the one real value to come out of his marriage. Though Dave was a bit stockier in build and hazel eyed instead of blue, the resemblance between them was strong. Dave even understood most of what had driven Duncan to be the man he was, even the parts that had torn the boy’s life apart when his parents split.

As time went by he had found himself going home less and less, knowing there would be an endless cycle of arguments and recriminations. They needed a better house, a newer car, money put aside for college for the kids. Except for David, he would have pulled the pin right then but he could not abandon the boy. Lacking ties to a past, some legacy to the future seemed very important to him.

It was about that time the girl rode into his life. She was a young woman really, but she seemed like a girl to a man then pushing forty real hard. He could remember the first day as clearly as if it was yesterday instead of half a lifetime ago.

He’d moved up to be a crew foreman, as high as he would ever go without schooling, certificates and credentials. The week had been difficult, supplies failed to arrive when they should, the hap-hazard crew of college boys marking time until classes resumed and ne’er-do-wells who worked mainly to get enough money to go on an extended drunk. Frustrations mounted, spilled over.

He was in the storage building at the site, cussing the stupid arrogant young punk who had just burned up a generator by failing to add oil, although he’d been told the procedure a dozen times if once. Duncan had clenched his fists until his nails bit into his palms with the effort not to beat the stupid kid into the cement deck. It took a moment for the sudden silence to sink in, a stillness broken only by the echo of his voice, loud and hard with anger.

He stuck his head out the door to find out the reason for the sudden hush.  Everything came to a brake-jammed halt. His thoughts scattered like the load in a truck slamming into an immoveable object.  He almost forgot to breathe.

She sat on a big red horse, a couple of smaller, younger looking ones trailing beside her on leads. She’d had some question, a rather pointless one it had seemed at the time. He could no longer remember what it was because it wasn’t important. What was important was her.

In some ways, she reminded him of Anabelle, but an Anabelle honed to a fine keenness and fired in a kiln of savage heat and pressure. Her tawny hair was dragged back into a long braid, wisps escaping around her tanned face, a lovely face though totally devoid of makeup. She was lean and wiry, tall for a girl if the horse was as big as it looked.

She wore faded, patched and dirty jeans with a chambray shirt. A beat-up “Mexican Stetson” shaded her face.  That was what the locals called the coarse palm fiber straw hats the Mexican farm hands and poorer cowboys wore in the summer.  In spite of her humble attire, she sat the horse like a queen, a defiant arrogance stiffening her spine. The typical whistles and crude remarks that normally flowed when anything female between fifteen and fifty appeared were curiously absent.

At first he figured her for one of the common construction groupies, young women who hung around to pick up the young men who were making pretty good money, had hot cars and a love for partying. Even after such an assessment, he could not ignore the blaze of attraction, of interest.

He felt he’d be out of the running from the first, but he had to try. Within a couple of conversations, he revised his opinions. The more he saw of her and learned about her, the more amazed he was. He’d thought himself too old, immune to the urgings of the flesh. He wasn’t.  He was overcome by the stir of longing hungers coupled with an admiration that knew few bounds. Evangeline McCormack came swiftly to dominate his thoughts and dreams.

Her life was harsh. With her father, she raised and trained horses, scratching along on a shoestring frayed to a few threads. What had happened to her mother, he had no idea, but she mentioned trying to keep a home for a younger brother while she carried a major share of the workload. Her father was not well, she hinted. There was plenty of work involved in keeping some fifty head fed, exercised, and displayed to potential buyers while training the spoiled or unbroke horses of other folks as well. She was older than he had thought at first, but naïve in the ways of the world because she’d never had much of a social life. She’d been out of high school for three years, had dreamed of college but felt sure her dream would never come to be.

From the local gossip, he leaned her father was eccentric at best. A lot of folks claimed he was crazy as a snake-bit skunk, and about as mean. Duncan began to sense Vangie had to walk a very careful path to avoid actual physical abuse and endured a lot of verbal abuse because of her dad’s moods and his tendency to be mad at the world. She was not afraid of much, but her father scared her. She did not say it in so many words, but he had become skilled at reading between the lines of what a person said.

That fear bothered Duncan badly. Meg—he never could say that “Mignon” right so for him his daughter became Meg--sometimes made him mad, because she had every bit of her mother’s petulant and demanding manner. Perhaps due to her mother’s pushing, Meg was growing into a real mercenary little snob as a teenager. In spite of that, he would never think of threatening her with violence or even being unduly harsh in his words to her. How could a father treat a child so, especially a girl-child?  It was something he could not begin to understand.

He vacillated then between anger at the cruel hand life had dealt and fear for Vangie. Friendship grew first, friendship which he freely offered and she accepted with a neediness that sometimes worried him.  He intended to stop things right there but fate had other ideas.

He soon came to recognize he wanted to wine and dine her, give her flowers and all the beautiful things she had never enjoyed. Of course that was not possible. The most they could usually do was meet somewhere as she rode and talk. On even more rare occasions, she would slip out at night very quietly to go for a ride with him in his pickup for an hour or two. They tried to be discrete and careful but secrets were hard to keep in the close little community of the construction camp.

She sometimes worried aloud her father would find out but the fear did not deter her from returning, time and again. Duncan worried he was too old for her, fretted because t he was still legally bound, broken though his marriage might be, and tried to urge her to look at some of the younger single guys in the crew, as much as it stuck in his craw to do so. She simply shook her head with a smile. “I don’t want one of them. I want you.”

Then from some mysterious cause, horses at the McCormack ranch began to sicken and die. He saw the anguish she felt. She loved each of the animals like children or siblings for they had been the best and truest friends she had known before meeting Duncan. Of course her father blamed her for the losses which eroded still further the shaky foundation of the business. When Jack McCormack began to drink heavily, Vangie grew even more fearful.

Duncan was torn almost beyond bearing. If he went ahead and filed for divorce as he should have done long ago, he’d lose David. He was sure of it. Covering the financial parameters Cathie was bound to demand would leave him barely enough to survive. Yet he could not allow Vangie’s situation to continue to deteriorate. She had come to depend on his support even if it was little more than words of comfort and stolen moments of closeness. 

It had taken weeks before he finally could no longer resist kissing her. It was one of those evenings they had gone for a drive and he brought her back to the spot on the river just below the ranch where they often met. She had hesitated, finally turning to him with a half-sobbed sigh. Her lips brushed his jaw before she burrowed her head down against his shoulder. Lifting her chin with a hand that would not stay steady, he took her soft innocent lips, going on to cover her face with kisses. It could easily have gone much further but he forced a halt while he still could.  

Too soon the job was over and he had to move on to the next one, over a hundred miles away. He tried to keep in contact and managed to get back to Willow Bend a couple of times a month. Each time she seemed more tightly drawn, more tense and fragile, bones so close to the surface they seemed ready to break through her skin when he held her. She always said there was no use talking about the situation and tried very hard to be positive and calm but he knew her well enough by then to see past that façade.

Legal business always went painfully slowly. Would his damned divorce never be finalized? He had to go home a couple of times for hearings, endure Cathie’s glares of hatred or smug little sneers as her lawyer demanded more and more.  He didn’t care about the money. Somehow he would survive on whatever was left, but now he could not see Dave at all and that was a thorn in his heart. Somehow life went on but the only bright spot in it was his visits to Willow Bend, despite the new worries he always took away with him.

Vangie had a favorite horse, the mare she’d had for eight years. She’d raised the mare from a short yearling colt, trained her with very little help, and refused even to consider selling her, no matter how tough things became. She called the shining sorrel Wildfire.  He’d seen them together and was awed at the tangible bond between them. Together they became a synergism of incredible beauty, nearing perfection, working as a magically synchronized union. Any more it seemed like Wildfire was the only joy in her life outside of him.

When he reached the valley that evening, his fifth visit since moving to the new site, he waited impatiently for her to appear at their planned meeting place. He was eager to share with her his news. The divorce proceedings were moving quickly at last, and in perhaps another month he would be legally free to take her away from this place. If her younger brother wanted to come, they’d work that out as well. He knew her loyalties. Somehow he would even make a place for Wildfire although that would be especially hard.

When she finally came, she seemed to slip like a ghost through the salt cedars and sandbank willows along the creek, coming with scarcely a sound to the rear of the truck where he stood, leaning against the tailgate. Even in the dimness of moonlight, he could see the tracks of tears on her face.

“What is it, Honey? What’s wrong?”

“Wildfire.” She choked on the name, sniffed and swallowed before going on in a flat, toneless voice. “I thought I could save her, finally went for the vet even though dad said we couldn’t afford it. I had a little money saved back, but it was too late. Dr. Barstow said it’s a contagious disease, something call abortion fever. It makes mares lose their colts and I guess it’s like an equine venereal disease. Now it’s all through the herd. Even if some survive, none of the mares can be bred and the stallions will have to be gelded to stop the spread.”

All he could do was hold her, let her cry, hurting to the depths of his heart for her grief. He’d never felt so helpless. Finally her wracking sobs eased and her shoulders stilled beneath his hands.

“Do you want to come away with me tonight?”

She lifted her face, a pale blue in the darkness. “But I, are you…?”

He shook his head reluctantly. “Not yet, but it won’t be long, maybe another five or six weeks until the decree is issued. I know, we weren’t going to live together that way, but I swear, you’ll be safe and stay as pure as the day you were born if you come.  Whatever anyone says, we’ll know the truth. Our wedding night will be for real, not a meaningless event after the fact.”

“I can’t, not just like that. There are a few things I’d need to take, and I think I have to bring Jackie. There’s no way I could leave him to face Dad’s wrath alone. He’s only twelve, still just a kid.  It’ll take some planning. When you’re ready, I’ll be ready too. We can wait a month.”

He left with a load of misgivings he could scarcely bear but there was really nothing else to do.

The next weekend he went back. He could not find her. He spent a night and a day, finally driven to actually go to the little homestead huddled under the looming hills north of Willow Bend. The place was deserted, corrals empty, the doors of sheds and barns hanging open, squeaking a melancholy tune as they shifting in the fitful evening breezes.

A few tracks lingered in the dust and wisps of bleached hay still inhabited corners of mangers and troughs. An icicle of foreboding stabbed into his gut, choking him with dread. He finally found out Jack McCormack was in jail, having allegedly taken a few shots at the authorities who came to quarantine the remaining sick animals but the kids were gone. No one seemed to know where. Vangie was of age and if the boy was with her, well, why should the law intervene?

He did everything he could to try to locate her. It was as if she had vanished into thin air. How could a twenty three year old woman and a twelve year old boy simply disappear?
Back then there had been no computers, no internet, none of the amazing new things a body could use now to hunt for missing persons.  If it had been today, Dave would have probably located them in a month or two. The boy was very good with the new tech stuff.

It was a long time before he finally admitted the search was hopeless, that he would never find her. He thought he would know if she was dead but maybe he was deluding himself.  For years he kept praying she would eventually reappear, come looking for him.

Thankfully Cathie and Meg were the ones to leave once the divorce was final, moving to Phoenix where the opportunities and amenities were much better than in the small town he’d made his home.  After about two years, he finally got custody of Dave. More years went by, slow as they passed one by one but looking back, faster than a semi flying down the freeway.

He retired, puttered around, and spent time with Dave and his wife.  Sallie was a sweet honest country girl, and he came to love her like a daughter. Then there were grandkids, three boys and two girls. He took them fishing and hunting, exploring in the hills and told them stories of long ago, sometimes even of a girl and a red mare called Wildfire. Eventually that time came to seem more like a dream than a real event in his life, but he never forgot…

***
The pain called him back from his reminiscences, a crushing weight on his chest against which he could not even breathe. He heard the nurses and aides scurrying around, muffled words tinged with panic. Then he felt David at his side. The boy’s two strong hands clutched his, holding tight. David’s voice, coming from far away, pleaded with him to hang on.

He wanted to speak, to tell them his time had come, that he had no desire to stay but he could not find a voice to use. Another voice seemed to be calling, from even farther away. He could not recognize it nor really hear the words, but he felt a tug in the depths of his being. He had somewhere to go and an urgency to make the journey.  Sensations faded, everything going dim and shady, distant and unreal. There was a tiny jolt. All at once he was drifting free of the aged and aching body.

Then he found himself standing in a vast empty plain, a desert mesa sloping away to the west with mountains behind him. He felt the bite of wind, tugging at his clothes and pushing on his hat, brushing by his face. He inhaled the sharp scent of wet creosote and juniper on that wind, and then heard the distant rumble of thunder as a storm swept down off the mountains. Suddenly the sound of hoof beats came, growing in strength over the rush of wind and the thunder.

At first he could not locate the source of the sound. Then a silhouette loomed against the sunset, a low band of scarlet and gold under the dark clouds. The shade morphed into a galloping horse with a slender rider clinging to its back. Sand scattered as the rider reined in beside him, still dark as a shadow.
 
At that moment, the sun broke through beneath the clouds and lit the red horse and its rider. The rider was female, hair shining in the coppery light, face lit with a brilliance that rivaled the sunbeam. She held her hand down to him, smiling with her heart in her eyes. “Come on. Jump up. We’re going riding Wildfire.”

He hesitated, thinking of the stiffness of an eighty five year old body, the fragility of eighty five year old bones. But he didn’t feel old and crippled up any more. With a spring that would have done credit to a Hollywood stuntman, he vaulted up behind her. The mare leaped into a gallop almost as soon as he settled in place, clasping his arms around Vangie’s waist.

 “You know where we’re going, don’t you?” Her voice held a fond, teasing tone as her words floated back to him. She spoke with a joy and assurance he had never heard from her before.  He was still disoriented but everything was starting to feel right, comfortable and exactly as it should be.

“I—I’m not sure,” he admitted. Another worry nagged at him. “Aren’t we too heavy for the mare, together this way?”

Vangie laughed, a happy spill of sound. “No, we don’t have to go far, just over the hill and home.  Wildfire knows the way. She knows you, too. Everything else is ready, waiting for you, just as I have been. Welcome home.”

 

 

Author’s Note:  Some years ago, Michael Martin Murphy recorded a song about a girl and her pony, a strange little song called Wildfire. It always haunted me, sad and yet somehow hopeful. From that song this story grew, a story with a happy ending in spite of everything, for I do believe in happily every after – with all my heart.  Share that belief with me and ride off into the sunset….  Call it heaven, fiddler’s green or Tirnanog as you will, but there is such a place, a place to which the only key is love: complete, unconditional and eternal love.  May you and those you love most meet there someday.

 

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