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He saw it first in the ice, a blur out of nowhere. Reflected in the white river, it came without scale or context, and at first it was as likely a moth as a bird.
At least, that was what he’d thought. He’d been out hunting the colt since just after dawn, and his eyes were tired. He thought he’d walk the steep shore, just in case the knucklehead had ventured in. A Morgan is supposed to be smart, he thought, but this roan bastard takes the cake for pea-brain. [End Page 152] [End Page 153]
His eyes were tired from the searching and from the cold, and for some reason when he saw the hawk in the ice, he thought of the cold slaughterhouse where he’d worked—what was it now?—maybe twenty years back. He could smell the blood again. Down in Carolina, the beeves groaning and the gun slamming its bolt into their brains. The skinning knives, the saws and cleavers, overhead hooks like inverted question marks. The blood runnel like the answer to all those inquiries. No, you didn’t forget that. After that, you were never clean.
And now the new colt he’d placed so much hope in had jumped a slat fence, smashing the top plank, and made east, toward the river. Bold, ballsy. He’d have to change that. If the snow had been fresh, he’d have had no trouble following, but it was patching, receding when the sun had its strong hours. No use for the whistle or calling out “Rango,” a name his wife had invented. For hours the horse had blundered in and out of mud and melt, over hummocks and through brush and ditches, but other forces—windblown limbs, scavengers out in the warm-up—left equally viable signs. The trail came and went, and the wind in his eyes didn’t help. This was not a task for a man with tracking skills or coaxing craft. Not for a man with farm discipline, good habits and intentions. It wanted a man with his back to the wind and kegs of leftover luck stored in his cellar, and he was not that man.
It all unfolded in a Chickasaw minute, and he only had time to think, What? Hawk crossing? No, damn it, in full plummet! before it fell out of a sky like dirty tin and struck the ice, its feathers the colors of late-fall-gone-winter—a slatey blue-gray, the remnant reds and sparse browns. Vein, Hadley would name it, or jute. Shark, pine soot, shingle. That russet shade of a maple leaf fallen maybe eight hours, curling in the cold, its saps all evaporating and fibers fraying. New snow and dirty snow. Hawk color. That’s what he’d say. Hadley had all the words.
There wasn’t time to ponder all that, though, and he didn’t think it, -just felt it the same way the Morgan felt the chance to clear the fence, the possibility of [End Page 154] it bleeding into need in one flash of brain fire. Stout, fast when he wanted to be, nobody’s idea of shy, the animal had felt the invitation in his blood and bones. It was his nature to break free.
The bird might have seen something in the ice it thought was prey—chipmunk, grouse. Pickings were scarce in this cold. What if it was just like your average yard cardinal seeing its double in a casement plate and attacking out of property pride? Territory. That had spurred the rift between him and his brother, led them to saw the farm right in half. As boys they’d been a team—behind the hounds, stretching fence, bucking hay—but since Hadley had returned, they’d been like strangers. And it wasn’t only territory: the cracking, misfallen four-story cedar that had left Hadley with the bad hip: that...