Word Count 4,775
This story was inspired by, and dedicated to, the beautiful racehorse Barbaro, who lost his courageous battle. Be forewarned: it’s a sad one.
‘John, it’s the right thing to do.’
‘You know it’s the right thing to do, Brother.’
‘Honey, you’ve done all you can. It’s the right thing to do.’
The words circled around the mind of Johnny Lancer; the words and the voices that spoke them: His father. His brother. His wife.
And a small nagging voice far in the back of his mind told him the same thing: ‘You have to, Johnny. He can’t go on anymore. It is the right thing to do. . . .’
And as much as he knew it was, he could not accept it.
He would not accept it.
Besides, it was too soon. The beautiful Palomino named Barranca was, by Johnny’s expert estimation, no more than 20 years old. ‘He should have another eight, nine, or ten years in front of him,’ Johnny angrily thought. But the infection that entered the horse’s left hind leg in July, and the laminitis that followed a few months later in the right hind leg, had slowly weakened the animal, and the laminitis that now affected Barranca’s front legs left the horse with, literally, no legs to stand on.
Johnny had agreed months ago that if and when nothing else could be done, the horse would be put down. And now it seemed, that time had come.
But Johnny Lancer would not accept it.
When Johnny retired Barranca some eight years earlier, the horse led a life that was better than that of most people. He had produced many a fine off-spring, and descendents of the horse were plentiful not only at Lancer, but the entire valley and as far off as Montana. As a matter of fact, Johnny’s current horse, Dakota, was the last offspring of Barranca and Lady Lorraine, the duo that had produced what Johnny considered the best of the best.
For the last four years, Barranca spent his days leisurely; grazing, playing with Cheyenne, his brother Scott’s retired horse, and enjoying time with Dakota. Johnny marveled at the interaction between Barranca and Dakota; the way Barranca would sometimes discipline the younger horse. It was obvious the two animals knew that the relationship between them was special: that they were father and son.
But that all changed when that damn infection entered the left rear leg. Murdoch Lancer had suggested to his younger son that the horse be put down then, but Johnny would not hear of it.
“It’s just an infection, Murdoch. We’ll get Doc Miller here, he’ll know what to do.”
Dr. Jack Miller was the vetenarian that had practiced in the Valley for the past ten years, and his presence was welcomed and greatly appreciated by the ranchers of the area. For so long, the late Dr. Jenkins, a ‘people’ doctor, had to tend to the animals, and he often complained that he treated people, not animals.
So when Dr. Miller arrived, his education and expertise saved many a horse, cow, and child’s pet from illness and injury.
And for awhile, his magic worked on Barranca. He had stopped the infection and the horse was walking daily, with assistance. He was eating good and continued to eye the mares that grazed nearby.
“None of that, Compadre,” Johnny scolded. “We’ll leave that up to Dakota.”
Then in September, what everyone feared had occurred. Because Barranca was favoring his infected leg, the dreaded laminitis affected the right hind leg, thus making him favor that one and adding pressure to the already infected leg, and adding additional pressure to his front legs as well.
Dr. Miller had done surgery on the laminitis-infected leg, removing part of the hoof and wrapping both rear legs tightly. With a lot of Tender Loving Care, Barranca was coping, having many good days. Each morning at 6 am, Johnny would visit the horse, being greeted by bright, hopeful eyes, a nicker, and a special touch that only the two of them understood.
At Christmas, the horse was presented with gifts, snacks, and home-made Christmas cards made by the children of Scott, Johnny, and Teresa Johnson, the younger sister of the Lancer brothers. Johnny presented Barranca with a home-made quilt that his wife Abby made, just for him.
On Christmas night, Johnny snuck into the barn and spent some quiet time with his ‘best friend.’ “You’re going to be all right, fella. You’re going to be here for a long time, don’t you worry.”
And Johnny Lancer truly believed his words.
January was always a slow time at Lancer, when everyone was catching up on small jobs before the busy spring season arrived. Johnny was looking forward to this spring, as Dakota had been bred with a chestnut-colored mare named Cynda, and their first offspring was due then.
It was the middle of January when the laminitis affected Barranca’s right front leg; a week later, the left front leg was affected. Everyone told Johnny it was time, but he refused to listen.
“I can see it in his eyes. As long as his eyes show life and hope, I will not give up. I will let you know when it’s time,” he angrily told everyone. “And Barranca will tell me.”
It was the last Sunday in January when Barranca told Johnny it was time. When he entered the barn that cold morning, the horse that Johnny encountered was not his beloved Barranca. The horse was obviously in great pain and distress; he didn’t seem to know what to do. He couldn’t stand, he couldn’t lie down. He just moved around incoherently, making noises Johnny had never heard before.
He was able to calm the animal down long enough to look into his eyes. They were hollow; nothing was there, and Johnny thought he saw tears coming from them.
The soft, gentle voice spoke to the horse: “What are telling me, fella? Is it time? Is that what you’re telling me? It is, isn’t it? I know, Compadre. I know. Don’t worry, I’ll make it all better. It will be over soon.”
Johnny called for Murdoch and Scott, and his brother left immediately to get Dr. Miller. A few hours later, the doctor, Scott, Murdoch, Johnny, and Abby, sat at the dining room table in Johnny and Abby’s home, and the doctor told Johnny there was nothing else he could do.
“It’s the right thing to do, Johnny. He’s suffering, he’s no longer happy. He needs to be put down.”
“Honey, you’ve done all you can. It’s the right thing.”
“John, it’s the right thing.”
“It’s the only thing you can do, Brother. The right thing. For him.”
“I won’t have a bullet put through his head. He’s too good for that,” Johnny angrily announced.
“There’s a new way to do it Johnny,” Dr. Miller explained. “It’s done with injections. We inject the animal with a heavy dose of tranquilizer and it just goes to sleep. It’s peaceful, quiet, and humane.”
“You done it before?”
“Many times, Johnny. It’s been done with the racehorses that have run in the Kentucky Derby. It’s very humane.”
Murdoch cleared his throat and asked, “What about the tradition Johnny? Have you given it any thought?”
“You know how I feel about that ‘tradition,’ Murdoch. I don’t know why or how you ranchers came up with such a thing.”
“It began before I arrived here, John,” Murdoch explained. “Horses are such large animals and difficult to bury. Rather than leave them to the elements, or burn them, we only bury their head, heart, and hooves. * It’s just easier. . . .” His voice trailed off.
“I know you did that with Major, and other Lancer horses, but I won’t do it with Barranca. He will be buried whole. Is that a problem?” Johnny asked bluntly, daring anyone to say it was.
“No,” Scott quickly responded. “As a matter of fact, we knew you’d feel that way. The boys and I,” referring to their respective sons, “have built a box for Barranca. It’s been completed for weeks. We didn’t tell you because, well, we didn’t want to upset you.” Scott’s voice was breaking.
Johnny was touched. “Thanks, Brother. You’ve lifted a weight off my shoulders.”
Abby interjected. “I’ve seen it, Honey. It’s beautiful. Just perfect for the sweet one.”
“When will this be done?” Johnny asked of Dr. Miller.
“Well, I’d like it done as soon as possible. I have everything with me. It can be all over in two hours.”
“I need more time. I. . .I want to stay with him tonight. There’s things I need to say to him. . . .”
“Dr. Miller, the children. . .they will want a chance to say good-bye. And we need to contact Teresa and her family,” Abby informed.
Dr. Miller considered what he was being told. “All right. We’ll do it tomorrow morning. I’ll stay here the night. But if he gets really bad during the night, I will not hesitate to take action. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Johnny dejectedly replied.
Teresa was notified, and she arrived immediately from her home on the outskirts of Green River with her children. She cried as she hugged Johnny and relayed the story of that first day at Lancer, when Johnny broke the spirited, wild horse.
The Johnson children, along with Scott’s children and his wife, Katherine, said their final good-byes to Barranca on Sunday night. Then Johnny’s children came, with Abby. Johnny’s young daughter, Mariah, looked up with tearful, sapphire eyes. “I don’t want Barranca in heaven. I want him here with us. I love him. . . .”
Johnny and Abby hugged their daughter, and promised that he would be happy in his new home. “He’ll be young again, honey, and running wild and free,” her daddy told her, choking back tears.
Johnny’s oldest son, 11-year Christopher, was brave as he told his father he would stay with him the night, and wanted to be there when it was done.
“You get some sleep tonight, and you can be with me in the morning. Murdoch, Scott, I want you both here as well. After all, you were there in the beginning. . . .”
Murdoch, Scott, and Christopher left for the main hacienda, knowing they would never sleep. Johnny was alone with Barranca, keeping watch and hoping the animal would remain calm until the morning.
And he did. Johnny talked the whole night, reminding Barranca of the day they overtook Pardee and jumped the two fences. That day was legendary and was still talked about by the citizens of the valley as if it had happened yesterday.
Johnny told Barranca how he was his only friend in the early days; the only one he trusted to tell his problems and fears to. He remembered the many times he would storm out of the mammoth hacienda after an argument with his father, and riding the horse would calm him until the time he returned home. He remembered the time he and Murdoch rode off to hunt a stand of wild horses, only a day after that man, what was his name, Stryker?, came looking to gun Johnny down.
Through good and bad, Barranca was there for him, and he remembered the final time he had ridden Barranca really hard. It was when his daughter was three and became ill, and he and Abby were told she might not make it. He took off and rode Barranca like he never had before, asking God to take him and spare his child. When he returned home, Mariah had miraculously recovered, and to this day, Johnny thanked Barranca for getting him through that long, lonely night.
“Hey Compadre? You wouldn’t care for a beer, would ya?” Johnny laughed, remembering how he would give the horse a sip of beer from his mug. “We have to do something about ‘kota. He don’t care for the stuff like you do.”
The darkness of the dimly-lit barn brightened from the dawn of Monday morning, the last sunrise that Barranca would see. Johnny got up and gathered feed for the horse, not sure he would eat what would be his last meal. But surprisingly, Barranca ate heartily, and drank the water that had sat there the day before without being touched.
Johnny looked into the eyes and the brightness had returned. His heart leapt as Murdoch and Scott entered the barn.
“He’s getting better! I can tell. .he’s eating and his eyes are bright. .we don’t have to do it. He’s better!”
Just then the doctor walked in, looked at the horse, and looked at Johnny.
“No, Johnny,” he said sadly. “It’s his last rally before the end. You know that. . .you’ve seen it before. It happens in people too. He’s happy because he knows it’s near, he knows that soon, he will be free from pain. He will be at peace. . . .I’m sorry, Son. . . .”
In his frustration, Johnny picked up a hammer that was lying there and threw it across the barn. Hard.
“No! No! I won’t let it happen! I won’t!”
Murdoch ran to his son, grabbed him tightly by the shoulders, and shook him. “John! Christopher is on his way here now. . .the child is heartbroken, he’s been putting on a brave face for us all night! Now you need to calm down and accept this, for your son. You’ll do him no good seeing you like this!”
Johnny raised his head and looked up into his father’s pale blue eyes, old with age but wise with wisdom. “I’m all right. Really. I just thought. . .there might be a chance. I’m fine. Chris won’t see me lose it. . . .”
Christopher arrived a few minutes later, and found his father to be in control of the situation. Dr. Miller injected Barranca with a tranquilizer, and the golden body made its way, gently, to the ground.
Johnny sat at Barranca’s head and held it in his lap. Christopher sat next to Johnny, followed by Scott and Murdoch. Dr. Miller sat at Barranca’s rear area, so he could do the injections.
Barranca’s heavy breathing slowed and quieted, and after one last look at Johnny, the big brown eyes closed. The horse was peacefully asleep.
The four Lancers petted and talked to the horse as the doctor injected a dose of anesthetic into its hip. He checked the heartbeat and announced it was still fairly strong. A few minutes later, he injected the lethal dose.
The barely audible breathing was silent now, and again Dr. Miller checked the heartbeat. “It’s faint, but it’s still working. This is one. . . .strong. .horse.” The Lancers continued to talk to the horse, to love it if you will, when the doctor checked one last time for a heartbeat.
He removed the stethoscope from his ears, and looked at Johnny with tear-filled eyes.
“It’s over. . .he’s gone. He’s at rest, Johnny. . .”
And Johnny Lancer, former gunfighter, buried his head in the golden mane of his best friend. And wept.
Sobs were heard from Christopher, and Scott grabbed his young nephew and held him tight, his own eyes burning with tears.
And the mighty Murdoch Lancer? Well, he walked outside of the barn and made his way to the back of it. And he broke down and cried, unashamed.
Barranca was buried later that day in what was a monumental task. Scott, under the direction of Dr. Miller and the assistance of several ranch hands, had built a special cart, low to the ground, to carry Barranca’s body to its gravesite. The pulley used to lift hay bales was used to lift the horse, which was placed in a special harness, onto the cart. Lancer’s strongest workhorses were used to pull the cart carrying the body, which was respectfully covered with a blanket, to the grave.
The grave had been dug the day before and the coffin put in place, in anticipation of the burial. A mattress was placed in the coffin. When the body of Barranca arrived, still in a harness, it was pulled off the cart and lowered, as gently as humanly possible, into the six-foot grave. The quilt that Abby had made for Barranca for Christmas was lowered onto the horse’s body.
While this task was being done, Johnny remained at his father’s hacienda, surrounded by his family.
When Johnny, accompanied by Abby, arrived at the gravesite, he examined the body and nodded his approval. Before the coffin was nailed shut, however, Johnny placed a small box and a canteen, courtesy of Chris, Mariah, and Steven Lancer, into it. Scott’s expression begged an explanation.
“The box contains a picture of us, so he’s not lonely, as well as two carrots, so he’s not hungry. And water. So he’s not thirsty. The kids want him to be happy on his journey.”
Scott couldn’t hold back his tears.
Johnny stood beside his father and watched as the coffin was covered with dirt. He knew he should be helping with the unhappy task, but he didn’t want to. He didn’t have the strength.
Or the heart. . . . .
It was sunset when the burial was finished, and only Johnny and Murdoch remained.
“Do you plan on having a marker made, Son?”
“Hadn’t thought about it. None of our other horses have one.”
“Well, if you’d like, next time I’m in town I can talk to Mr. Harris at the cemetery. I’ve been thinking about having a marker made for Major. . .I can have one made for Barranca, too.”
“Thanks, Murdoch. . .I’d like that. I’d like it kept simple, just his name, with the word ‘Compadre’ underneath. And the dates of his life. . .I think he was born in 1866. . .least that’s what I’ve always believed.”
“That sounds fine, Son.”
A heavy sigh came from Johnny. “Why does it have to hurt so much? It’s not supposed to hurt to love.”
“Sometimes, grief is the price we all pay for love,” * Murdoch gently explained.
And at that, he left Johnny alone with his thoughts.
Johnny knew it was the right thing to do, to end the life of the beautiful, spirited horse that was so much a part of him.
Yes, he knew it was the right thing. But, he would not accept it.
He could not accept it. . . .
Two Months Later, March 1885
It was a happy day when, two months to the day that Barranca was put to rest, Cynda successfully foaled a colt that was sired by Dakota. Johnny had assisted at the birth as it took both he and Scott to pull out the foal. Both mother and baby were doing well, and Christopher glowed as he pronounced that this colt, Barranca’s grandson, was promised to him.
The next day, as Scott and Johnny were heading into town, the elder Lancer son decided he needed to talk to his kid brother. Scott had been concerned about Johnny since Barranca was put down, but hadn’t really had the chance to talk to him until now.
“Can I ask you something, Johnny?”
“I was wondering. . . .why don’t you ride Dakota any more? You’ve barely acknowledged him since Barranca was put down.”
There was a silence, then Johnny slowly spoke.
“I don’t know. . . .I never really felt comfortable on him, or with him. ‘Sides, Copper here is a good horse. A. . .very good horse.”
“Yes, he is. It’s just that, well, you trained Dakota, and spent so much time with him. I just wondered. . .”
“Well quit wonderin’ Scott,” Johnny clipped. “Dakota and me, well, we ain’t compadres. Yeah, I trained him, trained him to be functional, a way to get from Point A to Point B. I didn’t train him like I trained Barranca. Besides, there are plenty of horses at Lancer that I can ride. I don’t need a. . .a . . .”
“A compadre, brother? You’re afraid, aren’t you?”
Scott was getting too close to the truth.
Scott continued. “You’re afraid to get close to Dakota, you’re afraid you’ll lose him, like you lost Barranca. That horse is hurting, Johnny. He misses Barranca, his father. And he misses his best friend. . .you. He’s lonely. He hasn’t been eating, he’s pining. If you don’t do something, Johnny, you will lose Dakota. Lose him to a broken heart. . .”
And at that, Scott sped off, leaving Johnny to ponder his words. And he knew that, as usual, his wise, older brother was right. .he was afraid. He did love Dakota, but he had never allowed himself to get close to the animal. After all, he didn’t need to. He had Barranca. . .
Dakota was a good horse, a beautiful horse, but he was the horse of a successful, responsible, and mature rancher. Johnny Lancer, at this point in his life, no longer needed to ride into town on a flashy Palomino to gain attention from the ladies. He had his lady at home.
Nor did he need a horse to escape on and push to the limit after an argument with his father. He didn’t feel the need to ‘run away’ from home anymore. Besides, he had his own family to take care of.
And whenever Johnny did feel ‘overwhelmed’ by life, as people sometimes do, he still had Barranca—his compadre—to talk to. He and Barranca would go to their favorite spot, by the creek, and Johnny would talk out his problem to his friend, who would listen and never, ever disagree.
He never did that with Dakota. Because Dakota was just. . .his horse. And he assumed that Barranca would be around for another nine or ten years, so he never felt the need to build a relationship with Dakota.
But Barranca died. He got sick and died and left him.
And when he did, Barranca took with him a part of Johnny that he could never have back. The youth, the freedom, the wildness of a cocky gunfighter. Barranca also took with him what he had taught a young gunfighter so long ago. . .how to trust. And how to love.
“Damn you Barranca! Why did you have to leave me? Why did you have to die? Damn you!” Johnny cried to the heavens. Then he spurred Copper into action and rode like the wind.
Like he hadn’t done in years. . . . .
When he got back to Lancer, he saw Dakota in the corral. He marveled at the pure beauty of the animal, and had to remind himself to stop comparing him to Barranca. After all, Dakota was a smaller horse, and not as heavy. And Johnny always thought that the animal resembled his mother, Lady Lorraine, more than his papa. But regardless, Dakota was beautiful in his own right.
And he deserved better from Johnny.
He made his way to the corral fence, the one he and Barranca had jumped over that day long ago when the horse took him ‘home,’ and called Dakota to him. He fed him a carrot and petted the horse’s nose, and rubbed him under the neck. Dakota responded by gently nudging Johnny’s face as Johnny spoke to him in the soft, gentle voice.
“You miss your papa, don’t you fella? I know. . .I do, too. And I haven’t been spending very much time with you either. I know, and I’m sorry. You need brushing. . .later, I’ll brush you and get your coat to shine. I. . .I never realized how truly beautiful you are. . .”
Dakota’s nose nudged Johnny again. And Johnny laughed.
“Ya know, I just rode poor Copper to the limit. But I feel the need to ride again. Would you like to take me for a ride? Maybe, we could visit your papa?”
Dakota whinnied and nodded his head.
After a slow ride to the gravesite, Johnny hopped off Dakota and kneeled at Barranca’s grave. Fresh flowers adorned the shiny new headstone, and he figured that Abby and Katherine and the kids must have visited recently. Johnny berated himself; he had not been here since the day Barranca was buried.
“Well fella, this is it. This is where you papa is resting. He earned the prettiest spot here,” Johnny said as he led Dakota to the grave. Johnny kneeled down and traced the letters of the horse’s name on the headstone with his fingers, and reminded himself to thank his father for the lovely marker.
He wasn’t paying any attention to Dakota, but when the horse started to wildly run in circles, stand up on his rear legs, and become, literally, out of control, Johnny’s senses went on alert. He instinctively grabbed his gun, thinking that a wild cat or perhaps a rattler was making Dakota go crazy.
But as Johnny watched, eyes wide with fear, Dakota went to the spot where Barranca rested, and began digging the ground with his hoof. He wildly sniffed the spot where the horse was buried, and reared himself on his hind legs so high that Johnny was fearful of being trampled.
Johnny thought the animal had gone mad, and with gun in hand, was ready to do the unthinkable. But as quickly as Dakota had gone crazy, he quieted down, the wildness gone, and the gentle horse returning. Dakota gently nudged his nose into the dirt at the gravesite, then walked over to Johnny.
Still slightly fearful, Johnny watched and waited as Dakota gently grabbed Johnny’s shirt between his teeth, and began pulling on him, as if to say, ‘It’s time to go. . .’ The horse walked away, turned around, and again approached Johnny, gently grabbing his shirt and pulling him.
Suddenly, Johnny understood. Dakota’s outburst was that of grief. The horse had missed his father; he didn’t understand where he had gone. But today, Johnny had taken him to Barranca, and the instinct that only animals have told Dakota that Barranca was there, under the ground.
And now that Dakota knew where Barranca was, that he was gone, but at peace, Dakota was satisfied. It was, in essence, time to go. To leave Barranca behind. Because there was nothing else anyone could to do.
It was over. . . .
Johnny ran to Dakota and buried his face in the warm, soft mane. He cried as he told Dakota he was sorry, that he loved him, and that he was right. . .it was over.
Johnny then walked to the grave and knelt down.
“Good bye, Compadre. It’s time I let you be in peace. Remember, I love you, and I’ll always love you. But I need to go on. Besides, I’ve got your son with me. The best of the best. . .a gem in his own right. And a man couldn’t ask for anything more. . . .”
After a few seconds, Johnny hopped up on Dakota and smiled. For he had let Barranca go.
And it felt good.
And he knew that it was the right thing to do.
And finally, he accepted it.
“Come on Compadre. . .let’s go home! You’ve got a son to meet. . .He’s beautiful. Just like you. . . .”
And at that, Johnny Lancer and his new ‘compadre,’ Dakota Lancer, rode like the wind.
They were going home! Barranca’s son and compadre would be all right. For today, they became one. . .
Rest well, sweet Barbaro. . .
And you too, dear Barranca. . .
*** *** ***
*Sometimes grief is the price we all pay for love. . .the words spoken by Gretchen Jackson, owner of Barbaro, after he was humanely put down.
*The tragic story of Barbaro renewed the interest I had as a teenager in horse racing and the Triple Crown; particularly, that of Secretariat, whom in my opinion was the greatest racehorse ever. In my reading, I learned it is a tradition that racehorses be buried with only their head, symbolizing intelligence; their heart, symbolizing strength; and their hooves, symbolizing power. I thought this was a unique, and, in its own way, touching tradition, so I incorporated it into my story.
Secretariat, however, is one of the few racehorses to be given the ‘honor’ of being buried ‘whole,’ because of his relatively young age (he was only 19 when he died in 1989 of laminitis), and because of the pure beauty of the animal. Therefore, in my story, Barranca is afforded the same ‘honor.’ ‘Big Red,’ as Secretariat is still affectionately known, is buried in a simple grave at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky.
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