Mare of Hepenstal

I will bolt,
I am shown the rope
To judge
Whether I find
The braid
To my liking.
Hide and hair,
Sinew and
Lariats created
For barter and raiding
And war and the
Quelling of rebellious, rowdy
Beeves and slender young
Men who
Tame their herds
To load the
Living bodies
Calmly onto trains, boilers
Simmering to
Transport the meat
East to the charnal
Houses. What
Do I care
For a rope like
All the others?
It is too new to be made
For my neck, or
The repair of the tack
In which I am

I hunch at the pressure
Of the unfamiliar
Rider’s leg thrown
Over my back.
Shrinking my withers
Under the cinch,
I rethink my purpose, steel
Myself, and make
Ready for the
Ride. It is commanded that
I be steady. I
Remain as I am,
Standing. I do not shy, for I
Can crop and graze
What grows between the
Gnarled feet
Of the twisted cottonwood
Where we stand
As if hiding.
Others arrive;
Words are
Spoken, serious
Instructions and the
Entreaties of a chorus not
Meant for my ears.
I know
My vocabulary;
I know the words that move me,
The words that
Still me.
Some words I know
And some I do not

His talk done, the
Man in black
His long nose in a thick
Book, others with long
Faces say “partner” in cheerful
Encouragement. Some
Hold the hemp I
Inspected and found
Normal, if too
The rope is
Unwound from my
Saddle on the
Ground; my back
Is bare: I am free; I am
Exposed to the quirt.
I am bare, but
For this man
And a sheer blanket that
Would warm a child
Less well than a strong
Fever. I feel
This rider like
Those before him:
Close to me
Through the thin
Blanket, trembling as if
He might be bothered
By flies.

The young man’s legs, bowed and
Warm as morning, pinching at
My haunches as if
His life
Depended upon our making
A good show. It has
Been years since
I performed before
Witnesses, a crowd
of eyes. Have I stretched
At the truth?
Am I to
Blame when the
Clown does not appear? If
The barrels will
Not fall?
They should know
My age, my
Abilities, my history
In the ring.
Gripped by nerves,
By groping hands;
I am a foal
Again, afraid of sharpened
Rowels. Shall
I snort and
Begin to buck,
Unasked? Hold.
I roll my eyes; panic leaks
Into my bones, my
Pudding-soft lips pulling
Stems of grass, my senses
Attuned to
Danger, sensing none,
Being surrounded only
By men.

When the slap comes, it is a caress, the
Hint of what could have been;
An order to lean in,
Push forward, to take
A step, much as the
Man with the
Book stepped to the side;
I do, but the legs
Of the man on me
Extend to his toe-tips.
Quivering, I
Hesitate, for we can only
Make progress
Together. There is the
Sound of a drunk
Atop me, snoring,
Hands tied
To the horn, making us both
Prisoners of
His excess.
The man’s heels dig at my
Flanks—he is
Bootless; I
Hear the
Creak of limbs
The complaint of the tree
That shaded us a moment
Ago; I hear the thousand pops of
The new rope
Its first important
Burden. His sock-feet
Slide away,
The snoring

I have done well. A pat
On my nose, a nub
Of wild onion, the boy
Pulling at my ears, drops
Of rain sliding
Over the cheekbones of the
Boy with peach
Fuzz, who believes
He owns me, says
I am his
Favorite, his lips whispering
Words into my ear
That are not commands—
Words I do not
Hear, meaningless; sounds
I do not want to
Remember, spoken like a

The shock of his kiss between my
Wide eyes; I shy
Carefully away,
For his pride is easy
To injure, and if I
Am unowned, too I am
Not free beyond my mind.
I am provided
Most of my clothes, my saddle, my
Shoulders rubbed in circles
By strangers,
As if for luck,
Signaling the end of
This strange exercise.
I stand
Ready to work,
My eyes on the men with
Their eyes on me,
Listening to my breathing,
The creak and sway of
Rope and root and

My moment of confused celebrity
Is done, I am ignored. Do I dare
Move? Do I dare look
Back at the man who cried
While suspended
In the noose?
What party
Was I to this? I recall
Committing only ordinary
Acts today,
Being led to
A fruitless tree;
Stepping forward
As asked—compliant,
Obedient—answering with
Silence, replying
By grinding bitter
In yellowing teeth I have
Worn smooth,
The scouring years of
Speechless knowing;
Nameless weights
I have carried,

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W. Sheridan Bradford writes horror (All Hallows, The Buzzkill) the old west (Rimfires, Sevenfold), contemporary western fiction (Born Again), science fiction (The Wreck of the Molon Labe), and is the author of numerous short stories and poems. Usually found in: Colorado, New Mexico, or Texas.

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