The Last Memory of Bally
by Kim Mary Trotto

They had the portrait done, all three of them sitting on Bally's high back, the year Daddy got seven dollars a head for their beef and they were flush. Sonny, a little kid then, sat in Daddy's lap. Mama had climbed up behind and put her arms around Daddy's waist, all the time complaining about what sitting on the big horse might do to her new blue serge jacket and black wool skirt. All the time laughing, too.

They'd all laughed when the photographer stuck his head out from under the cape to grumble about how Bally's fly-swatting tail would put blurs onto the photographic plate.

"Just take the damn picture, Norman," Daddy had said. Sonny was nearly sure she remembered that as she looked down at her lap, at their sober, younger faces shining in the silver frame.

Mama sent away for that frame and hung the photograph on the kitchen wall, where anyone visiting them would see it. When she died from a chesty cold, last winter, Daddy took it down and put in the cedar trunk, next to Mama's blue serge jacket and black wool skirt.

Sonny set the picture on the trunk lid and got to her feet. If she showed it to Daddy, maybe he wouldn't do what he planned. Perhaps, though, he wasn't ready to look at Mama's picture and think about her. Perhaps it would only make him sad again. What she really wanted was to find a way to tell him that Old Bally was part of their family and you did whatever you could for family. It might change his mind, Sonny thought, or not change a thing.

She carried the photograph down from the attic in the pocket of her apron. Her father was out somewhere in the cool morning, likely the barn, but he'd collected the eggs -- usually her chore -- and put them in a bowl on the table. There was fresh cut wood in the box by the stove and the cast-iron skillet sat on its top.

She got a fire going and tested the stove lid's heat with a splashed water droplet, then fried up some bacon from slices she'd cut in the smokehouse earlier. She used the grease for cooking the eggs, ground coffee and set it to boil, and toasted slices of bread.

When she was done and Daddy had still not come in, she filled her plate and sat down to eat. The rising sun threw squares of light across the table. Sonny glanced out the window. Not a single cloud. It would be a hot day. While she chewed, her head filled with words she'd need in the coming argument. She was weighing a few of them when Daddy came though the kitchen door.

She opened her mouth with the idea of saying one, then saw his face was already drawn, the lines deeper in the harsh summer light. He took one of their blue china plates from the cupboard, covered it with eggs and bacon and came to the table. All she finally said was, "Daddy, I'm going out to give Bally his medicine."

Daddy looked at her as he sat, but didn't comment. Sonny watched his sun-browned hand poke a fork at his eggs. There was silver above his ears, streaks of it in the dark curls on his forehead. She finished her own breakfast and pushed her plate to the side, still waiting for a response.

Daddy sat back and wiped at his mustache with one of the big, cloth napkins Mama had saved for special dinners, but Sonny chose to use every day. His eyes, blue as high sky, squinted in the window light.

"You oughta eat more," he said. "There's a heap of chores that need doing today."

"There's a heap of chores every damn day," Sonny told him. There was a sharpness in her voice she hadn't expected. Mama wouldn't have allowed it.

Daddy sat up straighter, his blue eyes drilling. "Think you're in some back pasture, not our own kitchen?"

"Sorry," she said, looking down. She might lose this argument before it even began. Sonny's finger rubbed at the smooth edge of the framed photograph in her apron pocket. It would stay there, she decided. "I'm going out with the medicine bucket for Bally," she told him again, scraping her chair back.

"Might as well not." Daddy reached for his coffee. "You know what I got to do today."

"No, Daddy. Bally's getting better." That sounded like a whiny kid and at fourteen, Sonny usually felt almost grown up. She kept her hands in her apron pockets and waited.

Daddy put down the coffee cup, his hand slow and careful, like he was afraid she'd see a quiver of doubt. He stood and walked out of the kitchen and on through their wood-paneled hallway. Sonny followed. When she saw him take his rifle from its pegs above the fireplace, she stomped back through the hallway and out the kitchen's rear door, slamming it behind her.

It didn't take Sonny much time to get where she was going. Her legs were long, like Daddy's, but she had her mother's white-blond hair and light gray eyes. Not Mama's sweetness, though. Sonny was stubborn and had a short fuse. She kept their house now, could cook and mend, had even sewed the calico dress that caught at her ankles as she walked to the saddle shed.

Sonny liked to think she was wise-headed and responsible. She kept her hair in neat braids, didn't dawdle after school, or waste time mooning over boys like the town girls. She deserved some say in how the ranch was run. She'd have her way in this.

Her spirits lifted in the grass-scented morning. She stopped in the doorway to admire the saddles on their benches and breathe in the warm smell of leather. Then she lifted Bally's medicine bucket from its hook just beyond the shed door. She filled the bucket with water and poured in medicine until the water turned orange. Sonny held the bottle to the light to see how much was left, how long before she'd need to pay a call on the horse doctor for a new supply.

The veterinary doc was new in town, had come all the way from Chicago, and some ranchers held that against him. Even Daddy said the medicine smelled like nothing more than watered-down gin. And the doc had said it might not work. That the best thing for a wound, whether it was on a horse's leg or a man's, was to keep it clean and change the bandages. Sonny hefted the bucket and started down the path to the fenced pasture where Bally waited.

"Hey, Bally. Hey, boy," she called. He stood at the pasture gate, watching her approach. His chestnut coat still gleamed like dark honey from Sonny's last brushing and sunlight made his tail look white as he used it to swat at flies. Bally's ears tilted toward her in welcome, his lips pulled back from long teeth.

Sonny saw how the old horse favored his right foreleg, caught in barbed wire a week earlier. The wire-cut leg was swollen, and really, no better than the day before, or the day before that.

A wave of sorrow passed through her. She reached up to pat Bally's grizzled nose, then lowered the bucket to his side of the fence and climbed over the rails. Her dress caught and she heard it rip. Damn. Daddy didn't care if she wore skirts or a pair of his old trousers, but she didn't like the idea of word getting to the old biddies in town that Sonny McCord dressed herself like a boy.

She'd mend the damn dress good enough to wear to a church social, but later. Now she slapped Bally's neck, then ran her hand over his boney shoulders and sagging back. "OK, old man," she said, "time for your medicine." She bent to set the horse's wounded leg into the bucket. As she straightened, she saw her father coming down the path.

He stopped some way back to lean his rifle against the pasture fence. Sonny watched him stand again, not quite straight after his years in a saddle.

"I bought him cheap," he'd told her. "'Cause the horse trader knew Bally was solid but no one could ride him. Horse took to me though and we've been partners ever since." Daddy came to the gate now, his eyes shifting away from her.

"Are you really gonna put him down today?" She asked a question that had a plain answer leaning against the fence.

"Got to be done. Now's as good a time as any. And you know he's had a good life"

"But, Daddy, he's not near that bad yet. Sure we can't call the horse doctor again?" Sonny was desperate.

"Can't afford it. Probably wouldn't do no good. He's too far gone. You can see that." He turned and looked back at his rifle. "Anyway," he said. "I gotta have this pasture for the mare."

"Lightfoot!" Sonny stepped back without realizing it. "Bally's way more important than Lightfoot, even if he is old. He is to me, anyway"

"That's just the point," her father said. "Lightfoot's a fine young mare, and you know the paddock she's in is too small. She needs running space. I'll break her. We'll break her. She'll be a great ride for you. Bally's old, not worth doctoring now."

Sonny felt her face heat up and her eyes start to sting. She'd known it would be today, had guessed it before she put her feet to the floorboards that morning and she'd promised herself, when the time came, she'd be strong. After all, Daddy often said -- had often demonstrated -- that ranching was a hard business. A man sometimes made harsh-seeming decisions about the animals that shared his land and made his living.

Still she argued, "But he saved your life. You said he..." She stopped, seeing a shadow cross Daddy's face. He remembered, of course. He and Uncle Charlie had been rounding up her uncle's white-face cows one fall. They were driving the herd from mountain pasture to the big corrals where the calves would be separated from their mamas, roped, tied, and branded.

When they got to the canyons that squeezed the land before it opened to the valley and Uncle Charlie's corrals, something went wrong. The cows might have smelled a bear that hadn't yet denned. Or maybe it was the leaning cliffs. You never knew with cattle. But the ones in front pulled up without warning, those behind slamming into them.

Cattle started to bawl, pink-rimmed eyes rolled back, tails slapped about. Daddy, Uncle Charlie, and the cow dogs had moved to keep the herd from stampeding. That's when an old breeding bull slashed open Bally's right shoulder. It was a nasty gash, enough to bring a good horse down. But Bally was a great horse. He'd kept his feet and kept Sonny's father from falling into the mash of cows.

"Yeah, he did save my life." Daddy stretched his hand across the fence to pat the old horse's neck. His fingers trembled a bit and this time, he didn't bother to hide it.

"And there was that time with the mountain lion," he told her, rubbing Bally's neck as he spoke. Sonny knew that story, too. He'd left the horse in a clump of trees while he climbed after a calf-killing lion. A careless misstep tripped his rifle and took a piece out of his left boot that included his little toe.

"You'd think that lion would high-tail it in the opposite direction when it heard the shot. But no. It leaps out of the rocks and heads straight for the trees and Bally. Would have sent any other horse running."

Daddy took his hand away from the horse's chestnut mane. "Bally was spooked but he done no more than jump aside. I got a clean shot at the lion and took it down." The big horse had stayed by him and he'd come home with a lion pelt and without one of his toes.

Sonny thought of how different things might have worked out if he'd ridden up there on a nervous mount, like Lightfoot. Both of them knew he'd never have made it home without Bally.

Thinking of Lightfoot gave her an idea. Couldn't they put Bally in the paddock? Even as she parted her lips to mention it, she realized the paddock was far too small for a big horse like Bally. He'd tear himself more on its close walls.

Daddy pulled at his hat. The day was beginning to smell hot. He reached across to Bally again and the horse nosed his hand. Ears forward, Bally made the soft nicker he reserved for this man, who'd been his friend for more than twenty years.

Sonny removed the medicine bucket. The old horse swung his head to snort at the flies that at once clustered around his wounded leg.

"Can I tend him just a little longer, please?" Sonny begged.

Her father's bushy eyebrows drew down, his eyes winter cold. "And when he don't get better, then what? If he gets worse…" He paused, not telling what his mind pictured. "Harder for him to heal now, Sonny. Not like a young horse, like Lightfoot. Time I put him down."

She swallowed to ease a tightness in her throat. Her father had once shot a stray dog that discovered the thrill of stealing eggs from their chicken house. The dog had been beautiful, with a thick red coat and floppy ears. She'd begged to keep him, sworn she'd break him of egg sucking.

Daddy had shaken his head. "No, you won't. Once they learn that, there's no changing 'em. I'm sorry, Sonny," he'd said. "I tried it when I was a boy. My pa had to do what I've gotta do and it was worse 'cause by then I'd made friends with the dog."

Daddy's cruel, she thought. Didn't he take new calves away from the milk cows, lock them in the barn, and force them to take their dinners from a bucket? Sonny cried when she saw the mama cows wandering the pasture, bawling for their calves.

Her fists clenched and the ache in her throat spread to her jaw. He treats the animals like they don't get scared or sad. I'm not that way, she told herself. Sonny picked up the bucket, dumped the water, and climbed out of the pasture. She went over the fence rails and got another tear in her skirt.

"Don't wear that if you can't open a gate," Daddy said. Sonny swung back in his direction.

"You're treating Bally just like the cows you slaughter for beef when they get too old to give milk. Or that pack mule with the split hoof you shot. I maybe could have doctored him."

Daddy shook his head. They'd already discussed the mule and how bad the damage was. His eyes got narrow, the shadows in them darker.

She ignored the signs and went on. "Oh Daddy, Bally's not like that mule or them cows. He's special. Maybe we can't afford to coddle him, but we got to."

"Shut your sass, girl." He didn't shout. He mostly never did. It was when his words got quieter, like now, that Sonny got more careful. "You don't know how I've been thinking on this. I don't care to destroy a good horse, but a ranch can't make a profit from a lame one. When all's said and done, Bally's an asset to the ranch, or he ain't."

How cold he sounded in his anger. Then his voice settled to something kinder. "I got you to think about, and this ranch. Keeping it for you and the children you might have someday. Got to mind that and not any horse, not even Bally."

Sonny's heart sank lower. She'd done her best but that didn't matter because she'd failed.

"Now," her father said. "You go on back to the house. No reason you should see this."

She swallowed again, but knew she couldn't hold back the tears this time. Sonny turned, stiff-backed, walking up the path toward the house. Then she picked up the front of her skirt and began to run. As she passed the rifle, she thought of taking it, hiding it somewhere, but knew she wouldn't do that. She would hide herself for a time and try to forget what her father would do today. And, maybe, after a while, she would.

Sonny ran nearly all the way to the small paddock where they kept Lightfoot. The copper-colored mare was standing with neck extended over the gate. She tossed her head as Sonny approached.

"You damn beautiful thing," the girl panted. She picked up a pebble near her shoe and threw it at the horse. Lightfoot bolted away from the gate, sped across the short space of the paddock and slammed into the fence boards on the far side.

Sonny gasped. But as Lightfoot turned, she saw the mare wasn't hurt. Her anger fled in the wave of relief. She came to the gate and reached out her hand to calm the horse. Lightfoot, famously shy and skittish, still allowed the girl to stroke her neck.

Sonny leaned forward, talking to the mare, caressing the glossy, red coat. "Sorry girl. Sorry." She kept patting the graceful young horse, so like herself in some ways, until she felt the animal easing under her fingers.

Sonny, too, felt calmer. She watched a fly pass her line of vision, took in the aroma of sagebrush beyond the barn, felt a breeze tug at loose hair on her forehead. But all she heard was a soft snort from the mare and a bird calling from the brush.

Where was the boom of Daddy's rifle? She supposed he was still telling Bally goodbye, working up his nerve. When more time passed with no sound of a shot, Sonny wondered if, just maybe, Daddy couldn't bring himself shoot his old friend.

She waited a little longer before getting down from the paddock fence and walking back toward the Bally's pasture. The old horse was still standing by the gate, but his head hung low. The rifle was where Daddy had left it, leaning against the fence a few yards from the gate and the dying horse. Daddy was nowhere to be seen.

Sonny stared at Bally. He seemed worse than he'd been an hour ago. His bad leg was fly covered up to the knee and the ugliness of it made her feel sick. He didn't stamp the flies away from his wound, didn't lift his head when she came to the fence. And where was Daddy?

He couldn't do it, Sonny thought.

"He couldn't do it," she said aloud. "He couldn't. You wouldn't let him, with all those memories you give him." She started to cry. "You stand there telling him he's not young anymore. He can't have things like they were. You're tearing at his heart."

Sonny hugged her arms to her chest and stared through a blur of tears at her shoes, buttons missing, scuffs across the toes. "It ain't fair."

Bally's breathing was strangled. Behind them a crow gave its scratchy call. In the far distance, a cow bellowed. The world going on.

Sonny took a breath. "You know what Daddy said," Her voice was thick from crying. "We need this pasture." She straightened and walked to the rifle, lifted it, and turned back to Bally. Sonny raised the rifle to her shoulder, aimed it between the horse's eyes. She held up a second to wipe at hot tears. When her vision cleared, she fired.

The End

As a young girl, Kim Mary Trotto's favorite book was Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James. She had the wonderful experience of spending her childhood summers on the family's working cattle ranch near Lakeview, Oregon. There she helped with ranch chores and even participated in a cattle drive. Always a storyteller, Kim enjoys transforming those exciting experiences into 'written down' tales.

Kim is a retired journalist with published essays, features, and news stories in various New Jersey newspapers and in Airman, a military magazine with world-wide circulation. She's a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and attends two very dynamic critique groups. She continues to pursue her interest in writing historical stories and novels for children and young adults and still enjoys reading and writing about the Old West. Although raised in Northern California, she now lives, with her husband, at the New Jersey Shore.

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