The Golden One
Tale of the Cat

by  Nancy

“Easy compadre. Don’t spook now. That cat’s near. Whoa.” The voice is a soft, comforting litany, but the legs and seat are firm, forcing me to stand beneath the rocky outcrop. The terrifying scent of the cougar fills my nostrils, and I want nothing more than to flee. But my rider has other ideas, determined to hunt down the big cat and end his depredations on the Lancer herds.

He fights my urge to run, but I’m unable to stand completely still, sidling nervously and tossing my head. “Steady, Barranca.” He runs a calming hand down my arched neck. I can feel the intense concentration in him, but the hand is gentle—he’s never touched me with anything but gentle hands. And that is what I call him—Gentle Hands. My stable mate, Charlemagne, and the other herd members call him Hothead, the two-legs call him Johnny. But to me, he is Gentle Hands.

“Easy, easy…. He’s right there….”

It happens too fast. I hear the rifle cock, a blood-chilling yowl. Then a tawny shadow arcs toward me, the rifle explodes, and I give in to my instincts—spinning, twisting, and kicking as the heavy body comes down on top of us.

Even as it dies, the cougar rakes us both with front and rear claws. Desperate to escape the slashing lines of agony, I rear to my full height to throw the cat away from me.

But something is wrong. The footing crumbles beneath me and I struggle to stay upright. Gentle Hands shifts his weight forward, trying to help me. But it’s not enough. I’m losing the battle, going over backwards. Frantically I struggle to roll away and not land on Gentle Hands, but I can’t, I can’t. Something gives in my shoulder and I’m coming down on top of him. He cries out and the world goes dark….


“Easy, easy, Barranca. You’re okay. Stay down.” It’s Grumble, his gray beard tickling my ear as he whispers to calm me. I’ve been dreaming again, reliving the accident, and he soothes me gently. I’m lying in my stall as he plasters my throbbing foreleg and shoulder with something he calls a poultice. He’s already packed a different kind of poultice into the deep furrows left by the cougar’s claws. And though the smell is awful, I have to admit that they do feel better now.

I don’t think I will ever stop aching. Exhausted and sore all over, I cannot touch my foreleg to the ground. I vaguely remember a heated discussion about whether or not my leg was broken. Two-legs can be so simple-minded  sometimes. How could I have brought Gentle Hands home if my leg was broken?

My memories of that homeward trek are hazy fragments: scrambling to my feet, stomping the lifeless body of the big cat, trying to rouse Gentle Hands…. He couldn’t get up, though he tried and tried. I do remember grabbing his jacket in my teeth as he held on to a stirrup and plodding along until we found an incline he could use to crawl onto my back.

“Take us home, Barranca.” And I did, a long painful journey, unable to move faster than a stumbling walk, ever vigilant to his slipping off to either side. He was unconscious almost from the moment he landed astride me. If he fell, he’d never get up again. So I kept myself centered beneath him and limped home to Lancer, every step sending fire through my shoulder and foreleg.

Gentle Hands…. I wish someone would let me know if he’s even still alive.


I'm falling, falling down a long dark canyon. I cry out in terror, thrashing as I try to right myself. In a sudden panic, I awake—and find myself in my nice, warm stall. Charlemagne stands over me, his nose nuzzling mine. My friend has brought me back from the darkness of a nightmare. He points out a strange horse in another stall—the doctor's horse. This means that the doctor is still in the house.

The poultice has eased some of the fire in my leg. Suddenly, I’m thirsty, thankful that Grumble has left a pail of fresh water right next to my head. I don’t even have to get up. He’s also spread a blanket over me.

Voices. It’s Grumble and Calm at the door of the barn.

“What’s the Doc say, Scott?”

“Not good, Jelly. He’s pretty bruised and battered—broken and cracked ribs, dislocated shoulder—Doc thinks his arm might be cracked, too. He’s got it splinted up, not taking chances. He speculates that Barranca fell on Johnny. We’re darn lucky he didn’t bust something inside and bleed to death or break his back or neck.”

“I’m hearin’ a ‘but’ here Scott. Johnny’s been bruised and busted up before. So why is the Doc still here?”

Calm sighs and shakes his head. “It’s the mauling he took from that cat, Jelly. Those claws left some awfully deep wounds and some of them are infected. He’s running a high fever and Doc’s afraid it’s been too high for too long. Johnny keeps calling out for Barranca so I thought I’d better find out about the horse.” He glances at my stall.  “I could sure use some good news, Jelly.”

They head towards me. I’d like to greet them on four legs, but I’m still too worn out to stand.

“Whoa, Barranca. Don’t you get up.” Grumble pulls back the blanket to show Calm where the cougar mauled me. “He’s scraped and banged up, too. Got some nasty scratches from that cat, but I think they’ll be okay. I’m more worried about that foreleg. Think he mighta tore something up high. See here?”

Calm sinks to his knees, deftly feeling my shoulder and leg, examining the scratches. “You’ve done a fine job doctoring him. There’s heat in this leg, but it’s not a tendon, and the poultice seems to be drawing it nicely. We’ll know more when we can watch him walk on it. He is one battered pony, but I think his leg will recover.”

Grumble is studying my shoulder. “Ya know, he prob’ly hurt that leg tryin’ not to fall on top of Johnny.”

Calm nods. “That would explain why Johnny’s back or pelvis isn’t broken.”

“Course, Johnny was prob’ly tryin’ to land on the bottom, cushion the horse’s fall.” Grumble is trying to coax a smile from Calm. It doesn’t work.

He suddenly buries his face in his hands. “God, Jelly, all I could think about was what would I tell Johnny if Barranca…”

Grumble puts a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t even say it. They’re both gonna be just fine.”

Calm takes a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. He reaches over and rubs my forehead between the eyes. “How in the world was this horse able to get him home?”

Grumble shakes his head. “Love of his master mebbe?”

I hear Charlemagne giving me a horse laugh as I flatten my ears at Grumble. Charlemagne says Calm is his “master” and Hothead is mine. Calm may be Charlemagne’s master, but Gentle Hands and I are compadres—that’s what Gentle Hands says.

Calm shakes his head. “You’ve got sand in you, Barranca. You surely do.”

 “I just wish he’d eat.” Grumble pulls out some sugar and offers it on his hand.

Calm closes his hand over Grumble’s and moves the treat away. “Jelly, how many times do I have to tell you and Johnny that feeding these horses treats like sugar and carrots from your hand makes them nippy? Make him a warm bran mash and see if he’ll eat that. Forget this treat business.” He stands up wearily. “I’d better get back inside. Johnny might need me.”


I drowse away the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, waking when the doctor finally leaves. Charlemagne says Hothead must be doing better if the doctor is going back to town. I hope so. I know I’m feeling stronger than I did last night, especially after the mash Grumble fixed for me. He used lots of molasses, just the way I like it. I do wish he’d bring back a treat. Calm’s not here to prevent it, and anyway I’m not nippy!
Gentle Hands says I’m “mouthy” because I always explore things with my nose and like to taste everything, but I really don’t nip or bite.

Charlemagne says Calm has been down to check on me several times. He reckons Hothead must’ve been pretty bad off last night because Calm had that tight, drawn look about the mouth he gets when Hothead is in danger. I’m trying to explain one more time that it’s ‘Gentle Hands,’ not ‘Hothead’ when Grumble and Gruff walk up.

“So he’s gonna be okay, Boss?”

“Doc thinks so, Jelly. He’s a pretty sick boy, but his fever is finally down and he’s resting much more comfortably now. How’s his horse?”

“He’s restin’ more comfortable, too. And he’s eatin’ and drinkin’. Me and Scott think he’s gonna make it.”

Gruff stares down at me. I can’t read his face. “That’s good to hear. I’d better get back upstairs. Stop by to see Johnny when you want. He’ll probably be asleep…”

Grumble snorts (he snorts better than Charlemagne).

“Yeah, Jelly, I hope. Keeping him off his feet until Doc says he can get up is going to be the real trick.”

I’m too tired to make sense out of their talk, but it sounds as if Gentle Hands is better. I ‘m relieved, nodding off to sleep with dreams of treats and my compadre’s soft voice.


The whistle jerks me out of my fitful doze. It’s our special whistle and I toss my head up to see Gentle Hands silhouetted in the door of the barn. I must’ve slept all afternoon, it’s dark again.

Lurching shakily to my feet, I welcome him with the whicker that is for him alone—a low, breathy sound, deep in my chest. He smiles at the greeting (the smile of genuine delight that lights his entire face) and gingerly makes his way to me, leaning heavily against the wall. His face and upper body are bruised an angry yellow and purple from where I rolled over him. Heavy bandages cover his chest and belly, testament to the cougar’s accuracy with its slashing claws, even in its death throes. His ribs are tightly bound, and the splinted left arm is in a sling. He looks as sore and used up as I feel.

He stares at me in amazement and relief, as if he can’t believe I’m standing in front of him. “Barranca.” The soft voice is hypnotic and I bump him with my nose. He rubs my muzzle, looking me over. “Cat got you, too, huh fella? Ain’t we a sorry pair.” His uninjured hand strokes my neck, rubs across my withers and trails down my back and rump.

“Let me get a good look at you. Glad Jelly left this lamp burnin.” Those gentle hands carefully examine the deep scratches along my ribs and down my hindquarters. The tenderness in the long fingers is comforting, but I sense his regret at my injuries. “Damn.”

He takes a quick breath and bends to assess my still-swollen foreleg. “You did this tryin’ not to roll on me.” I try to stand still, but finally flinch away from his careful probing. “Sorry, compadre. All done now.”

He straightens slowly, but starts to sway, flushed face suddenly whiter than my mane. Shifting my balance, I push up against him to support his weight on my neck and shoulder. He leans against me gratefully and I realize he’s taken his arm out of the sling, entangling his hand in my mane. He rests there, head buried against my neck, his other hand scratching that special spot under my jaw. I can feel him shaking against me, as well as something wet on my neck. I turn my head and softly lip his cheek.

“Yeah, you’re a good fella,” he croons. “Good fella… Oh, pony, I thought you’d broke your leg and they just wouldn’t tell me about it. Had to come see for myself.” His voice breaks in a sob. His weight is causing my shoulder and foreleg to throb again, but I stand patiently, letting his emotions play out. We’ve done this before.

He regains control after a moment. “You got us home, Barranca. Even hurt like you are, you got us home. We both look like we been rode hard and put up wet. But looks like Jelly has you fixed up. Reckon’ you’re gonna be okay.”

His shoulders are still shaking, and beneath his cheek my neck is getting wetter. He staggers and sags hard against me “Whoa, son. Sorry ‘bout that. I - I’m not feelin’ so good. Don’t think I’m gonna make it back to the house.” He gives me that crooked smile—the special one that crawls up the side of his mouth, the one only his compadres get to see. “Guess it’ll be next month ‘fore I hear the end of it. Be bad enough when they find out I’m out of bed, much less out here. Thought I’d be able to get back inside before…”

His voice trails off. He has a death grip on my mane and I carefully lower my head, easing him down into the thick straw. He gives a soft cry of pain as his injured arm drops to his side. I nuzzle his neck, licking salty tears from his face.  He smiles sleepily, his eyes closing. “Gracias, Barranca.”

Charlemagne hangs his head over the rail, broadcasting his disapproval—Hothead is being foolish again. He is right, as usual. I can sense the exhaustion, pain and fever in Gentle Hands. He needs to be back in the house where the other two-legs can take care of him.

A door slams and we hear Calm and Gruff in the courtyard. For once, Calm is anything but. Agitated is more like it. “Johnny! …Where could he be, Murdoch? …Johnny! …I thought you were with him. I only went to bed because you said you’d sit up with him. I don’t understand what you…”
“Settle down, Scott. I went to the kitchen to get him some broth. He was asleep when I left. Besides, he can’t get very far in his condition. We’ll find him.”

“Well, I wish you’d called me to stay with him while you stepped out. You know how he is about staying in bed. I’m going to see if Jelly’s seen him!” Calm marches off with that upright, purposeful stride he uses when he is angry. Gentle Hands says you don’t mess with Calm when he holds his head at that angle and does that quick step.

I’ve never seen Calm so disrespectful to Gruff! I think about this for a moment, then Gentle Hands groans. Charlemagne and I exchange knowing looks. He knows what I’m thinking. Together we nicker to Gruff, squealing until he turns to the barn to see what all the commotion is about. I see the realization dawn on his face. Suddenly, he’s running towards us.

“Johnny!” He skids around the corner and into the aisle, stopping short when he sees Gentle Hands. He drops to his knees, carefully assessing Gentle Hands’ injuries. Shaking his head, Gruff replaces the splinted arm in the empty sling, then slips out of his jacket and tucks it around the bare shoulders and heavily bandaged chest.

I watch warily yet protectively. I can’t figure Gruff out. He seems so stern, but then he’ll walk by with a quick pat and I feel that maybe he has a velvet fist hidden in an iron glove (I heard that expression from Calm). Truth be told, I’m a bit nervous around him (don’t tell, but Gentle Hands is, too). Gruff and Gentle Hands yell at each other a lot and I’ve had plenty of hard gallops as a result. So now I watch to be sure Gruff doesn’t upset Gentle Hands while he sleeps. I’m not up to a run right now and I don’t think Gentle Hands is either.

But there are no harsh words tonight. Gruff seems more amused—or is it relieved—than angry. He carefully brushes the sweat-matted hair from Gentle Hands’ forehead. There is a smile on his face—if it weren’t Gruff, I’d say a tender smile. “Oh son, I should have known I’d find you out here.”

I nuzzle Gentle Hands’ face and Gruff looks up at me. “He woke up twice this afternoon and both times his first question was about you.” He stands up suddenly. Nervously, I take a quick step back. “Shh, fellow. Easy.” His hand reaches out. I catch Charlemagne’s eye and his look mirrors mine—it’s the same look that would make Gentle Hands tell Calm to “pick your jaw up off the floor, Boston!”

Gruff tenderly strokes my neck. His big hands are amazingly gentle, reminding me of another pair of hands. I’m astonished when he offers me a lump of sugar. Gruff, of all the two-legs! Then his fingers find that secret spot under my jaw and he gives me a quick scritch... “Thanks, little horse. Thanks for bringing him home.” He is speaking softly and his voice is strange, there’s a kind of catch in it. I share another wide-eyed look with Charlemagne.


Charlemagne breaks up the moment, whiffling a greeting as Calm and Grumble stride through the door. Gruff stops petting me, clears his throat and turns toward them. “Shhh. Be quiet. He’s here—sound asleep in Barranca’s stall. He’s okay.”

Calm is here instantly, kneeling to touch Gentle Hands’ shoulder, “Hey, little brother.” He looks up at Gruff. “Well, I suppose we should’ve known he’d end up out here sooner or later. He’s been fretting about this horse all afternoon.” He strokes the same strand of dark hair that Gruff brushed back earlier. “His fever’s rising again. This little jaunt didn’t do him any good.”

Gruff nods. “Maybe not, but you know how he feels about his horse. He’ll rest easier now knowing Barranca will be all right.”

Calm stands suddenly, blinking like he has something in his eye. His firm hand is on my neck, rubbing behind my ear. The hand isn’t quite steady. I’ve never seen Calm like this! “Good boy, Barranca. Such a good boy.” I sneak a peek at Charlemagne. He has another of those “dropped jaw” looks.
And suddenly Calm is pulling something from his pocket, offering it to me—a piece of carrot! Mr. ‘Don’t Give a Horse a Treat Because You’ll Teach him to Nip’ is giving me a carrot! I don’t dare look at Charlemagne as I delicately lip the treat from his palm, solemnly crunching it. I fight down the urge to give Calm a quick nip.

Calm tickles my chin. “You did real good, golden boy,” he whispers. He takes a deep breath and drags his sleeve across his eyes. It must be the freshly cut hay stacked in the barn. All of the two-legs are having trouble with their eyes tonight. 

Giving Charlemagne a quick, distracted pat, Calm kneels beside Gentle Hands again. He is checking for fresh bleeding from the chest scratches and relaxes slightly when he doesn’t find any. “I guess we’ll have to tie him to the bed until Doc says he can get up. Or maybe it would be easier to just bring that horse into the house.”

Grumble gets going now, reminding me of Dewdrop, the goose. “See. If ya’d just listen to me. Why don’t nobody listen to me? I said, ‘Johnny’s all fired upset about his horse.’ I said, ‘carry him to the window and let me walk the horse out so he can see he’s alive.’ But nooo. ‘No Jelly, Johnny can’t be moved.’ And now look. He’s done dragged hisself outa bed and down to the barn. Bet old Doc’s gonna be real happy to see those infected scratches in a horse stall.” He pauses for a breath. “Heck, with Teresa away, maybe it would be easier to bring the horse into the house.”
Charlemagne blows a big ruffling snort through his nostrils, shaking his head up and down in disgust. If looks could kill…! I force myself not to look back at him. Bet there’s lots of treats in the house.

“Enough, Jelly.” Calm brushes a finger across Gentle Hands’ bruised cheek, stiffening at the soft moan the gentle contact causes. He looks up at Gruff, “That boy is going to be the death of me. I seriously think we need to build a woodshed.”
Grumble cracks a loud laugh and nods in approval. I can sense Charlemagne’s agreement, too. I flatten my ears and roll my eyes, giving them my most evil look.

Gruff laughs, kneeling beside Gentle Hands. “Come on, son. Let’s get you back in bed.” He lifts Gentle Hands as easily as if he were a child, cradling him in his arms as Calm and Grumble carefully cover his shoulders and chest with Gruff’s jacket. I watch the dark head snuggle close to Gruff’s broad shoulder. Gruff is suddenly very still and then he slowly lowers his cheek to rest on the black hair. His eyes are closed and his mouth is moving, but no words are coming out. The hay must be bothering Gruff’s eyes, too.

Gentle Hands stirs restlessly, mumbling something I can’t hear. Gruff smiles and turns toward me with his precious burden. Gentle Hands reaches out, tangles his fingers in my long forelock and tugs gently. His eyes are closed and I hear his soft voice, slurred with exhaustion, pain and fever, “—cias     —ranca.” 

Calm is still agitated. “We need to get him back in bed now—get his fever down and clean up those scratches again. I think I’d better sit up with him.” Calm pats Charlemagne again, but he doesn’t offer him a piece of carrot! “Sorry we had to drag you out of bed, Jelly. I know you’ve been busy taking care of Barranca. You did a nice job on him—Thanks.” 

He and Gruff head for the house with Gentle Hands. Calm is still marching with his head at that certain angle. Gruff ignores him, making soothing sounds to Gentle Hands, “That’s right, son. Sleep now. Just rest. And don’t worry about that horse of yours. We’ll take good care of the golden one.” 

Their voices recede. “Move out of the way Scott, I’ve got him. …No, I said I’m sitting up with him!”

Grumble is making his little tsk tsk noise, rubbing some of his special liniment ‘coction into my shoulder and foreleg. “Now you need to lay yourself back down, take the weight off’n that leg. Good boy. What did the Boss call you? The golden one. Well, what ya brung us was sure worth more than gold. Ya did real good, horse.” And he slips an apple under my nose. I crunch it happily, careful not to glance next door.

He blows out the lamp and leaves us to the quiet, soothing darkness. I’m tired and sore, but content. Gentle Hands and I have survived and will one day gallop the Lancer pastures together again. I wrinkle my lips at the thought of all the attention I’ve received: sugar from Gruff(!), carrot from Calm, apple from Grumble. 

I sneak a look at Charlemagne. He is pointedly ignoring me, still trying to figure out why Gruff and Calm fed me treats—and why not him. He’s pretty disgusted with the whole thing. Calm would say he is the picture of outraged dignity. Gentle Hands would say he looks like he has a broomstick up his… I’m suddenly too weary to stand, sinking down to lie in the thick straw.

I give a huge sigh, rolling to my side and stretching my neck and legs. Instantly, Charlemagne’s head is over the rail, and he nuzzles me, making sure I’m okay and that I know he is there to stand watch. What a good compadre. Then I think of my Gentle Hands with his spark of mischief lurking just below the surface. I give Charlemagne a sideways look. Won’t he be—now what would Calm say? ‘Displeased.’ Yeah, won’t Charlemagne be displeased when I get them to take me into the house tomorrow…



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