Excerpt from Tiny Americans - Winner of the Book of the Year Award for Traditional Fiction

By Devin Murphy

     In the summer, the older Girl Scouts kicked out the screens of their bunkhouse at night and wandered the open fields at the back part of the ranch. They often walked down the dirt road my cabin was on to get to the horse pasture. I could see them in the dark. They moved like timid deer—taking quick dashes ten yards at a time and stopping to assess the night around them. They betrayed themselves by laughing when one bumped into the other. I kept my porch light off so I could see the stars. The girls never paid attention to my cabin tucked along the tree line or me sitting on the deck as they lined up along the fence of the pasture, stepping on the first plank to lean over the top and coo to the horses. They waved carrots and apples they hoarded from the mess hall. I liked watching them—the slow saunter of the horses approaching and nuzzling the girls; their movements breaking the stillness of the night, fireflies touching the space around them like thin blue flames.

     By morning, the girls made their way back to their bunks, and the horses were slick with dew and honey-colored in the pasture. The bear grass bloomed like fists of light pounding up the hillside, and by afternoon, rainstorms darkened the sky and struck the ground with lightning before blowing over and leaving a calm I have only felt in the mountains.

     My boss, Joe, rented the horses from an outfit called Sombrero that let them free-range in the mountains during the fall and winter. The horses were all starved and half-wild by spring when they come to the Girl Scout ranch. Joe had us wait by the horse trailers when they arrived to send back the ones we thought were too sick. If we could fit a dime between its protruding ribs we wouldn’t let it off the trailer. The ones we kept had to spend two weeks being retrained by the wrangler girls.

     So when a wrangler called first thing in the morning from the stable and said an old horse had died, Joe said, “You fellas misjudged one,” and we had to go out in the rain to dispose of the dead horse before the campers saw it.

     Joe drove us to the pasture. The pasture ran along an incline with a large cup of earth surrounded by lodgepole pines with rainwater pooling over the roots. My coworker Kurt said that later in the summer the rain washes away the topsoil down to the clay, “and the clay gets slicker than snot.”

     Kurt and I took the tractor into the pasture. It was slow going—the wheels hardly caught in the mud. In the trees lay a dark brown quarter horse. Its head sloped downward enough to show a row of yellow headstone-shaped teeth embedded in the gums. Its unfurled tongue lay on the ground like a dull pink ladle.

     “We’d be better off letting the mud swallow the damn thing,” Kurt yells over the engine noise.

     The other horses were in the open part of the pasture. But the one they called All-But watched us through the trees. All-But had everything but one eye. The eye he had was a piercing cloudy blue. That blue eye was on us as Kurt tied a sheepshank knot to bind the dead horse’s back legs together. He hooked a chain to the knotted rope and looped the chain on the back of the tractor where I stood as Kurt drove. He eased the tractor forward slowly so he wouldn’t tear off the legs. When the chain was taut, he leaned on the gas, and the old horse pivoted from the pot of earth it died in. Once we got it out of the trees it slid easily over the wet mud. As it dragged over jagged rocks, I noticed chunks of the hide and meaty patches of the horse’s side were left behind it. Joe held the gate open for us so none of the other horses could get out.

     “Drag it as far into the woods as you can, and toss some brush cover over it,” Joe said. He had on a mesh baseball cap and the beads of rain ran down the back of his neck. The cold did nothing to change his posture or his directness. He seemed like he’d done everything a hundred times. I admired this about him. Kurt drove past the horse barn, toward the woods, away from the little girls’ cabins.

      We untied it in the woods at the end of the camp’s property. The hide had been scraped raw, and the last ten yards of mud we moved it through were blood-smeared. This high up, there was too much bedrock to bury it, so we used jigsaws to cut away at the surrounding trees’ lowest branches and piled them over the horse until we could no longer see how mangled it was. Part of me felt we should have lit the pile on fire.

      I rode on the back of the tractor as we returned the way we came. The rain washed the copper-red blood marks and clumps of horsehair away from the trail. There were already turkey vultures flying in wide spirals above the slope we left the horse on, the black finger of their beaks tracing the mountainside. The birds cut through the sky like they were scrolling something on the mountain’s thermal updrafts—a language of nature’s precision, its cycles of wind, that I was hoping would tell me how to start my life over.