by Pamela Ryder

SPRING SETTLES IN for certain with the first warm rain, and overnight the field above the paddock is overgrown with Kansas grasses—bluestem and timothy and sedge. And then the pretty poisons sprout: buttercup, poke, pimpernel. But Billy, city boy Billy. New York born and new to such Midwestern expanses. What would he know of weeds and wildflowers and what a horse will eat? What would he know of bloat or strangles or colic or tainted hay? Or how the lush waves of Kansas grass—after a winter of hay and oats—would rupture its gut. Billy finds the horse Finn down on his side, moaning, belly distended, spewing a bloody shit. Eyes rolling back to the whites the way a china doll’s would with its lead-weighted rockers broken. Billy, city boy Billy. He has seen horses teeter and drop in the streets of Irish Town. Shot down in the streets of Irish Town. A collision at the train crossing: the wagon immobile with a rear wheelrim jammed between bolt-head and rail, the wagon-driver shouting git damn it, pull goddamn you, and pummeling the horse that strains in its traces, and not a thought to setting the animal loose by freeing the reins and unfixing the tug-chains, and with the locomotive upon them, the driver jumping away, the wagon shattered and dragged, the horse still in harness skinned along the tracks, limbs still attached but at unnatural angles. A crowd then, always a crowd. All passengers will please remain on board the train. Eventually a pistol arrives, pointed, fired. Bone bespatters the crossties. The knacker arrives unbidden. And yes, Billy has seen old horses drop and die during a whipping, such old souls they are, past caring, past able, deciding better to go to their knees for the final blows, a pole between the ears, a rump nearly flayed open. A crowd again then, always a crowd.  Please step back, ladies and gentlemen. Once again the pistol, placed against the head, fired. Brain flung this time into the gutter. He has seen the eyes still open. Staying so.  Tongue bloodied between the worn and broken teeth. Alright folks, move along, just a horse, nothing to see, folks. Nothing to see. City boy Billy, he has a gun. Of course he does. He has seen a gun so positioned. Fired. He has seen the way it is done. And now here is the horse Finn, thrashing, wailing, eyes rolling, neck twisting, as if raising its head for one last look. Billy lifts his pistol.

That you shooting? calls Ed Mueller now, coming from one farm over, heading under the spruces and loading his Remington as he passes through the gloom, so dim there any time of day that nothing grows from the floor of fallen needles except the ghost pipes that have no need of light.

There the gunshot horse in the grass. The leak of blood from the mouth drying in clots in the morning sun. Turkey vultures have begun their vigil. Three of them sit hunched on the roof of the barn. One spreads a wing and feathers fanwise and peers over the edge of its primaries. The day already warming. Well now, says Ed Muller, will you look at that. The bloat was it? he says. 

Don’t know, says Billy. Likely something I done, he says.

I’ll fetch the lye, says Ed Muller. Got plenty.


Pamela Ryder is the author of two novels-in-stories, Correction of Drift about the Lindbergh baby kidnap case and Paradise Field, depicting a father’s drift into infirmity and death (both Fiction Collective 2), as well as the short story collection, A Tendency to Be Gone (Dzanc).  Her work has been published in many literary journals including The QuarterlyBellevue Literary ReviewPrairie SchoonerUnsaidAlaska Quarterly ReviewBlack Warrior ReviewGulf CoastTyrant, and Conjunctions. Ryder is at work on a novel about the boy desperado, Billy the Kid. Her website is