The horse dealer coughed from somewhere deep in his throat, turned his head to one side and aimed a wet gob of black tobacco juice into a rusty old spittoon behind him. He turned back to the audience of tired cowhands, a few ranchers and a couple of bored looking cardsharps. “Well folks, that’s just about it for t’day. All the best horses are gone. We have just one old nag left to sell, and I tell you folks – this horse ‘aint rightly worth wastin’ my time over. To tell the truth I feel downright ashamed to be insultin’ your intelligence by bringin’ her out – but we have to git rid of all our stock today. The ranch is bein’ sold and all along with it. Furniture, buildins and livestock.”
The tired old horse stumbled in; her coat was mangy, rubbed bald along her flanks, her knobbly knees seemed far too big for her spindly legs, her tail hung limp and ragged and her mane was knotted and greasy. Her ears lay drooping forward and she barely raised her head above the rough dirt floor. She looked so sad and bedraggled; literally on her last legs, as, shuffling along, she kept close to the rails in the deep shadow. The men around the corral stubbornly kept their hands in their pockets, some wandered off, some laughed. “Come on folks. Tell you what, I’ll accept any offer cos’ tomorrow, if she isn’t sold, she’ll be dog meat and glue.” He twisted the wad of chewing tobacco round his mouth, and spat another brown drool behind him. “Last chance boys,”
The teenager perched on a top rail, looked at her sad old eyes. Yes, even the horse knew it was the end alright, there was no glimmer of hope left in those sad eyes – but as she stepped into a shaft of sunlight, she suddenly raised her head, shook off the flies that had settled on her face and whinnied defiantly. The boy was seized with emotion; his fingers searched desperately in his jeans and closed on the single dime. He knew what he had to do; his heart was bursting in his chest. He was nervous and sweating but he shouted out “A dime, mister, I’ll have her for a dime”.
“Now son, be sensible. You know I can’t let her go for a dime, she’ll earn more than that for butcher’s meat. Any serious offers now?”
“But you said you’d accept any bid Mister.”
“That was just colloquial speakin’ there, boy, you must realise that.”
One of the better-dressed men spoke up. “Call yourself a horse dealer? You should be ashamed. A deal’s a deal. You said you’d accept any bid. Let the boy have the nag, it won’t make no difference to the owners, they’re bankrupt anyway.” Murmurs went round the ring, heads were nodded, and soon a chorus of voices rang out. “Let the boy have the horse. Let the boy have the horse.”
The horse dealer closed his ledger with a slam and blinked into the sunlight. Exasperated, he spoke at last, “Alright, alright” he knew the crowd was against him, he was tired and beaten and just wanted to get away – “Give the boy the horse. It ‘ain’t no odds to me after all. That’s it folks; I’m done.” He got down off his step ladder to wild applause. The teenager was hoisted on men’s shoulders and run around the ring, hats were flung high in the air. The old nag walked slowly behind them, round and round the ring. Shyly he approached her. He held out his hand and she softly nuzzled his fingers. He led her off, and as he passed the horse dealer a heavy hand was laid upon his thin shoulder.
“Son, don’t you ever pull a crazy stunt like that again. If I see you in my audience another time, I’ll get you outta there so quick you’ll think your britches was on fire.”
“Okay mister. It was just she looked so sad and all; I just had to have her. I’ll look after her – I promise I will.”
When he got the horse home his father went wild. “Who do you think will pay for her feed, boy. And if she gets sick she’ll just have to die, I can’t afford no vets bills, son.”
“I’ll get a job at the store, old Jackson is looking for a boy, I’ll go see him in the morning – just let me keep the horse Dad.”
And he did; he worked hard from morning to nightfall, he fed and washed his horse, he bathed her sore flanks, he put down fresh straw for her every night.
One day he threw an old blanket over her and standing on a wooden box gingerly got up onto her back she turned her head, as if in surprise, and then, obediently walked forward. She was too old to gallop but managed a half-hobbling trot. The boy was so delighted with his old girl; they soon became the best of friends. He rode her every night, just round the homestead and back.
But all too soon he realised that the horse dealer had been right – she was well past her best. That winter when the snows came, she developed a hacking cough. The vet came out as a favour to his father, and said she should be kept indoors. He gave the boy an old bottle of cough elixir he found in the back of his office. But she got worse and worse, her nose and eyes were running, her head hung low, she was shivering all over. But she clung on and some-how she pulled through. She perked up just as the sticky buds were first appearing on the trees.
But later that summer she got ill again and the vet said there was nothing else he could do for her. It was her heart this time and her breathing was ragged and splutteringly painful. The vet offered to shoot her to put her out of her misery, but the boy begged for another week to see if she got better. The vet walked away shaking his head. The boy made himself up a bed in her stable and held her head, gently stroking her face as she fitfully tried to sleep. He whispered into her ear, “Stay with me, old girl. Don’t leave me like this. Don’t die yet my beauty.” In the end, even the boy was forced to agree that her time was up; she hadn’t the energy to even lift her poor old head.
He couldn’t watch as the vet pulled the big black gun out of his bag. He shuddered as he heard the shot, and a few seconds later the dull thud as she hit the ground. He didn’t turn around until the men had dragged her away.
A few years passed. The boy was now a man, he eventually became manager of the store and a few years later took over from old Jackson himself. He married and had children of his own. As an old man he often told his grandchildren the story of the horse he bought for a dime. How, caring for that horse had turned him from a boy, a feckless teenager to be honest, into a man. He would reach over to the little desk and pull out a battered old matchbox and say “And the best part was that miserable old horse dealer wasn’t so clever after all. I bid a dime, that was all I owned, my entire worldly wealth. And you know what – that old horse dealer was so disgusted that I’d gotten the horse for next to nothing that he forgot to ask me for the dime. Here she is in this matchbox, see. I’ve never spent that dime and I never will either. That horse, that battered old wreck that nobody wanted, that sad old girl, became my best friend. She taught me how to love something other than myself, the most important lesson anyone can learn. When I looked into her eyes as she lay dying in my arms I felt her pain, but I also saw her beauty, her pride – and she knew I loved her too, she knew I cared.
If I ever see that horse dealer again, which I won’t ‘cos he musta been dead a long time now – I‘ll shake him by the hand. Yes, my dears, that was the best dime I never even spent.”