The Elysium End
by Roland Cheek
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He was an old man holding a brown bag, with cancer slowly having its painful way. He had nothing left for which to live.
Favorite horse and world’s greatest dog—both gone.
Few friends left—the best of the rest having passed over the Great Divide.
Once young and vibrant, with a young and beautiful wife who loved him and loved to do the kinds of thing that turned his crank: visiting wild places and watching wild things, climbing mountains, riding horses over winding trails; theirs was a life of envy to other outdoors lovers. Now all left were memories, some bitter, some sweet. Memories and a couple of horses, one bitter, one sweet.
He’d planned it carefully, chosen the wildest, most beautiful, most remote cliff-lined basin he knew; a place seldom (if ever) visited by another human. He’d hunted elk a couple of times there in the blush of his youth, then revisited with his wife forty years later. He said he wanted to go to this most beautiful place “one last time,” and she insisted on going too, mostly because she feared, in his dotage, to let him venture to such a remote and dangerous place alone. It was their last horseback packtrip together. . . .
Now, he’d fought off yesterday’s pain, ignored bone-tiring weariness, spaced out traitorous second thoughts, and dismissed the questioning of an ordered mind to reach this, his own private wild place for what would certainly be his last time. It was to be his “Elysium End.”
The last two horses from the years he guided others to wilderness adventure brought him here, the ugly dishwater mare and the bay packhorse. The bay was a fine, trustworthy packhorse, though long in the tooth—growing old. The mare was something else: ugly as sin, with a head so large his old friend Lars claimed she “could lick oats out of the bottom a fifty-gallon drum and still stare all around for enemies.” But Lyle, another old friend, said the Nez Perce Indians bred appaloosas because it was a breed that was “so clumsy and slow that its owner could catch one while on foot.”
The ugly mare was indeed clumsy. And her trot was bone-jarring. She galloped like a sick milk cow. But she was good for one thing: she could walk! Smooth, too. Riding her running walk was like squatting in the rear seat of a brand-new Lincoln Continental on a fresh-laid macadam highway. Just because God didn’t make her into a surrey trotter or a steeplechaser wasn’t her fault. Neither could she help her lack of color, or the size of her head. She could walk, though. And if walk was what was wanted, then walk, by God, was what she’d do!
But he could never warm up to her. He couldn’t warm up to her mostly because she ignored him as if he never existed. If he scratched an ear, it was something to which she was resigned, but cared not a whit about one way or another. She accepted oats as if it was her due, showing no gratitude, and certainly no affection. The animal tolerated him. That was all.