D. C. Owens teaches creative writing at California Correctional Center and, via a California Arts Council grant, is Artist in Residence at Credence High. His poetry, fiction and film criticism have appeared in Aethlon, Rock Springs Review, South Dakota Review, and other publications.
Dusty sunlight touches the ridgetops
first, nudges tardy stars into the next
canyon, boots the molting moon
toward tomorrow. We ride a worn
trail, bound for far drift fences, our six
mounts in single-file formation. Birds
begin to stir in indistinct willows. Squirrels
slide down slick red banks, stop
short at the tiny trickle left
in the little creek. Beneath dewless yellow
grass, rattlesnakes awaken also,
wait patiently in blue shadows for the sun
to warm their blood. Brash light tumbles
down steep ridge sides, an avalanche
of brightness that shocks the dawn
away. One by one, our horses stop,
snort, and shake their manes, as if we
have all trailed along asleep ever since
we left the barn. Then, as more heavy
light descends, we move on again through
morning, into the working day's harsh glare.
The gray team maintains a steady gait
against blunt windblown snowflakes,
while cattle disappear into a whiteout
blank behind the hay wagon where I have
thrown flakes of seasoned timothy mixed
with last spring's dried-out rose clover.
Rom and Remus with their Roman noses
have memorized this field, dodge with ease
the treacheries of snow-covered stones
and camouflaged potholes, swerve
so that hidden cracks in the sod
below cannot snatch the worn
wheels of this well-used wooden wagon.
They, like me, smell the pine-wood
smoke that uncoils like a rope all down
the length of our home-ranch valley.
But, until this job is done, they will still
shoulder on into the storm, press forward
against a wind oblivious to our work-ethic
folly. No tractor could navigate, undriven,
the way from barn to haybed and back,
then back again. Even through two
feet of drifted snow they know exactly
where and when and how to go.
I whistle twice. Their ears perk up.
They hesitate, then stop. I climb down,
reach into my woolen pocket, remove
for them an apple apiece, fresh,
bright red, well-polished. Like a grateful
kid on his last day of school, I wade
forward and offer them these gifts.
As the herd mills around and snow
sifts down, I marvel once more at massive
work-horse grace. Happy,
secure, unflappable, they nibble
the apples with their habitual,
deliberate patience. I climb back
onto the wagon seat, reach for unneeded
reins, click my tongue twice, merely along
for the ride. Those two thick exemplars
of stoic virtue slowly circle around,
then backtrack back to the barn again.
They wait in place while I stack more hay
onto that durable winter wagon.