The gray of early dawn greeted my eyes as a woman’s shrill voice echoed through my mind, rapidly becoming reality. “Tony, Tony, where’s Horace?” the sound fairly screamed at me, a woman desperate to find her husband and who, out of some sort of deference, had waited for first light to bother me. I tried to lie to her, to buy myself a little time to figure out just exactly what she was talking about, but she saw through it and offered no resistance as she closed the door and walked away.The last time I’d seen Horace had been at lunch the previous day. My parents were gone somewhere and I was, even though only 16, the “boss” out on Woody Creek’s Elkhorn Ranch. We had two hired men that summer, Horace being one of them and he and I had, out of coincidence, arrived at the ranch house about the same time. I was heading to the post office to check the mail (letters from a sexy Texan) and offered to take Horace along for the ride.Being a kid and unaware of unknown adult repercussions, I asked Horace if maybe he wouldn’t like to have a beer with lunch, as in, “let’s get a six-pack,” and he readily concurred. We headed up the road to the ranch, going slow, and by the time I had downed a beer, Horace had killed four and was working on his fifth (beer). Driving by what is now Hunter Thompson’s old place, about halfway home, he asked me if maybe we shouldn’t go back and get another six-pack. It was my opinion that we needed to get back to work, but Horace said if I’d let him out, he’d walk back to the store and get some more beer. “I’m just real thirsty,” he said.There was not an inkling in my mind of the kind of demon I was helping to unleash, even though this was a strange turn of events, and so stopped the car and let Horace out. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think much about him the rest of the day. We were on a 1,200-acre ranch, doing different things, so it wasn’t unusual to not see another person for most of the day. If I did miss him, it was no doubt with the thought that he had gone home, giving himself the day off, a phenomenon I knew little about at the time.However, his wife, in an adenoidal instant, had pointed out something far more serious than an afternoon off, and my heart pounded in my chest and ears as I tried to put the pieces together and figure it out. As the sun came up, I relayed my story to her, and she settled in for the wait, something she had obviously been through before.My dad got a call from Horace, in Cheyenne, about two weeks later, wondering if he could get bus fare home and a little money for food. Dad, of course, sent the money and as he figured might happen, Horace didn’t show. “He’ll call again, when he’s ready,” said my father. It only took about a week the second time, but that was the call that stuck and as my dad and Horace came back from the bus station, it seemed like everyone was out to watch them pull in and curious to see if Horace had anything to say. He was grinning from ear to ear, glad to see some familiar faces, but boy, he didn’t look too good. About as white as the chalk on a blackboard and shaking like an aspen leaf in a wind storm.Despite it all, it’s hard to know how a man and woman put things back together after a rift like that, but they did, and Horace finished out the summer with us, as sober as the day my dad hired him. I’ll just never forget his wife hollering up the stairs that morning.Tony Vagneur has seen a lot since. Read him here on Saturdays and send mail to email@example.com
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.