Most just called it “The Ranch”. It was a five thousand acre spread in the mountains of northern New Mexico and since the Sixties it had been the playground of the rich and famous. But the Pandemic had closed it down since early February as dozens of their best customers quickly cancelled their reservations.
The stately Main House lay empty and quiet guarded only by ‘Old Jim’ who had been with “The Ranch” since before it was just for rich dudes. Nobody knew how old he really was but there was speculation that he was possibly over a hundred. It didn’t matter much to the management since ‘Old Jim’ was more reliable than any of their other employees and twice as savvy with the horses.
The old man had just finished feeding the horses when he heard the phone in the barn ring. He wiped his hands on his jacket, walked to the phone and picked it up. It was a call from the owner of “The Ranch”.
“Jim, it’s Walt. I’m in Santa Fe and will be up later this week. We’re opening up again, my friend!” As he held the receiver, ‘Old Jim’ spit some chewing tobacco onto the barn floor as his boss continued, “They’ve lifted the restrictions. Our first guests will be arriving next Monday morning.” Wiping his nose with the sleeve of his jacket, ‘Old Jim’ managed to mutter, “Uh-huh” into the phone.
“Right. Just make sure you have seven horses saddled and ready to go. No children this time. All adults. One guy you’ll remember. The drunk that fell off his horse two years ago. You’ll have to watch him very carefully this time, Jim.” There was a pause and then the owner finished with, “Okay. That’s all for now. See you in a couple of days, Jim.”
Hanging up the phone, the old man thought back to when he was a young boy on “The Ranch”. His father was the foreman then, and he was a mean drunk. ‘Old Jim’ took many beatings over the years from his father until he learned how to handle hard drinkers. And he’d handle this drunk coming up on Monday the same way he’d handled his father.
He didn’t remember exactly how he learned how to do it. It just happened one day when his father had a heat on and had reached for the belt. Jim was about seven then, but he was a big seven-year-old. As his father moved towards him, Jim just stood sideways, his hands by his side with a cold look in his eyes. His father never got closer than three feet away from him. He took one look at Jim standing there with that look and never laid a hand on him again. Jim’s father died in 1918 along with his mother, and it wasn’t from hard drinking. Almost everyone in Jim’s family died that year. He was seven and all alone. And he had handled drunks the same way since then. And it was the same year he began working with the horses in the barn. And there was something he knew about the horses in the barn that nobody else alive knew.
By Monday morning, the Main House was open for business. Delivery trucks had been arriving all weekend and the staff had been called back for the reopening. ‘Old Jim’ had started saddling the horses in the barn as soon as he saw the limo arrive with the new guests and he was just finishing up when his boss and his new guests arrived just outside the barn door.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is ‘Old Jim’. He’ll be your trail guide on today’s ride. He knows these mountains like the back of his hand,” the owner related to the group.
The drunk was weaving a bit in the rear of the group as he blurted out, “Jush how old is the old coot, Walt?”
Jim said nothing. Instead, he just spit some tobacco on the ground between him and the group.
Walt didn’t respond to the drunk but turned to Jim and told him to bring the horses out. Jim looked at him and matter-of-factly said, “They ain’t comin’ out, Boss. They won’t budge.”
The drunk pushed his way through the small group of guests and stumbled towards Jim, yelling “Get those goddamn steeds out here right now, old man!”
Jim said nothing. He turned slightly, his hands down by his side, a cold look on his face.
The drunk stopped dead in his tracks. Something told him to not take one step further, something that cut through the haze of his mind like a knife. He looked around, embarrassed, and said at the top of his voice, “Let’s get out of this dump!” The rest of the small group agreed and turned and walked back towards the Main House and their limo.
The owner roughly pulled ‘Old Jim’ aside and under his breath growled, “There goes fifty thousand, Jim. Just because you can’t get those damn horses out of the barn. What is wrong with you?”
Jim removed the boss’s hand from his arm, turned his head towards the barn and said, “The horses inside, their bloodline goes back to before I was born on this ranch, boss. I seen this happen once before, horses refusing to move from the barn.”
“What are you talking about, Jim. Make some sense, will you?” his boss demanded.
“It was 1918, boss. Before any of us knew anything was happening. But the horses did. They sensed it and wanted nothing to do with it. Just like today, boss. They sensed it in those people. The horses know them folks got it and them folks either don’t know it or won’t tell. Either way, best you get rid of them, and fast.”
His boss just stood there dumbfounded and stuttered, “You mean . . .?”
“Yeah, boss. Wash yer hands.”