Summer Short Story Award Honorable Mention: “That Chookaloski Mare” by Ashley Thorup

March 11, 2024

“It was the summer of breaking,” begins Ashley Thorup’s “That Chookaloski Mare,” chosen by The Masters Review editors as one of two honorable mentions in our 2023 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers. Thorup’s story was an early favorite for our readers, immaculately crafted, with a devastating but well-earned ending. Stay tuned for the rest of our Summer Short Story Award finalists!


It was the summer of breaking: the AC, the tractor’s ram cylinder, the soft flesh of Cody’s foot when he stepped on a nail, an Arkansas heat record, the dun mare. He’d sold the old baler to buy her. The math didn’t quite work, but we’d both stretched our dollars for so long we felt like Gumby. I found beauty in her plainness, in the tans and taupes and chestnuts that made up her coat, her mane, her tail. She was all khakis and work boots and a button up. Practical, but wild. Like she’d be at work on time, but she’d be drunk. Early in the morning she galloped through the pasture behind the house like it was her job to raise the sun. I’d sip my coffee on the back porch and listen to her whinny as her hooves met the earth. Sometimes the other horses would join in, but most of the time she ran alone.

* * *

That late July morning, I prepared for our roping trip to Don Dub’s. I unloaded a case of beer into a cooler, covered it with ice, and set four marinating ribeyes in plastic bags on top. A shirtless Cody strode into the kitchen, kissed my head, and ducked into the laundry room for a clean white v-neck slightly yellowed in the pits.

“This house was made for shorties,” he’d told me when I’d moved in six months earlier, the day after my twenty-third birthday. By shorties, he meant average-sized people. He was every bit of 6’5 and I stood 5’11. We bent under doorways and squatted in the shower to wash the shampoo off our heads. He’d purchased the property after the original owners, an elderly couple, were murdered. Their throats were slit by a hired hand who came in the night to rob them. The old woman put up a fight. I googled it once, hoping he was pulling my leg. It turned out to be true.

I picked up two ice cubes, popped one in my mouth, and rolled one over my forehead. As Cody reemerged in a shirt, I bent strategically to close the cooler, letting my back arch and my jean shorts creep up my thigh. In three strides, he was upon me. I backed into the nearest wall. Cody kissed me gently, gradually working his tongue into my mouth, then stealing the half melted ice cube I’d been nursing. He pulled back, crunched the ice, and patted my ass.

“I’m so hungry I could eat the tits off a boar hog,” he said as he opened the pantry, pushing past peanuts and Pop-Tarts till his hand met the familiar rustle of a chip bag. “Let’s load the horses and get gone.”

* * *

We rounded up Bay, Gray, and the nameless mare from the pasture and led them to the trailer. Cody loaded Bay without issue, dependable old fellow that he was, while I held the reins of the other two. He reached for Gray’s rope, directing him into the trailer. Gray put two hooves in and backed out again. Two in, two out, again and again. Instinctively, I backed the mare away from the boys.

“Motherfucker,” Cody said as he spat. His spit pooled above the earth, as if the dust were oil and his spit water.

My palms dampened around the rope. As the mare and I took another step back, a small kingsnake crossed the gravel drive about fifteen feet away. I angled myself in front of the mare so she wouldn’t spook, and prayed Cody missed it, too. When Cody was ten, his cousin was bit by a cottonmouth while they swam in a creek. He carried his phobia into adulthood, and nothing fueled his anger like fear.

My gaze danced between Cody and the mare, wondering which was more unpredictable, closer to eruption. I counted my breaths to slow my heart. In two, three, four, out two, three, four. The snake went unnoticed.

After a few more frustrated attempts to load Gray, Cody lifted the lead rope and whipped the horse’s hindquarters. He stumbled, then hopped up, four legs finally in the trailer. I stopped counting. Cody had never hit me, but he did hit around me. He lifted the rope and popped the horse again, harder this time.

“Little bastard. I ought to whoop your ass,” he said as he snatched the mare’s lead from my grasp. She jumped right in, as if it were her idea, and I took my place on the passenger’s side of his silver pickup.

The truck smelled of mud and stale fries, though I occasionally caught a spicy whiff of the deodorant he kept in the cup holder, cap half on. After a minute or two of metal slamming to secure the trailer, he dropped into the driver’s seat. We set off.

“Road soda?” I asked, producing two beers from my purse.

“Nah,” he said.

I preferred when he drank with me, but I slid the second can back into my purse and popped the top to my own just as my phone dinged.

“Heat advisory,” I said. I’d fallen into the habit of announcing whoever was communicating with me. It made him secure.

“All damn summer’s a heat advisory around here,” he said. “If you can’t handle that, the only advising you need’s to move north.”

“And with today’s weather advice from Cody Crawford: if you’re hot, move north,” I said. He laughed. “Is anyone else coming today or just us and Don Dub?”

Don Dub—the header to Cody’s heeler—had built a new arena they intended to break in. He was twice our age, like all of Cody’s buddies, and had been Cody’s roping partner for years. When we started dating, Cody told stories of Don Dub’s glory days on the rodeo circuit, winning prize money, women, buckles, and saddles across the country.

“Tammy will probably be there,” Cody said. “And her kids, I guess, but it’s just us roping.” He glanced right and left as he rolled through a stop sign.

Don Dub was kin to Reba McEntire, first cousins on his dad’s side, and he made sure you didn’t forget. Best I could tell, all the women in his stories were a distant memory, save his wife, Tammy. She was a rodeo queen herself—a barrel racer—and had family money. They had an arrangement, Cody said. I imagined two loveless rodeo wash-ups sleeping in different beds, dreaming of bygone cowboys and cowgirls.

I’d met Cody and Don Dub a year earlier at the Old Fort Days Rodeo in Fort Smith. They were there to rope, I was there to sing the national anthem. It was one of my bigger gigs with a thousand or so people attending each year. My performance went well and several people found me after to tell me so.

A tall man in a heavily starched Wranglers smiled at me from his post by the concession stand, but hung back while the others flattered me. That smile, white and wide with dimples in both cheeks, might as well have been a bullseye—it was his attention I wanted.

When the people dispersed, the man introduced himself as Cody and bought me a beer. He didn’t praise me the way the others had, but being the focus of his attention felt like its own kind of accolade. To the right of the counter, six feet from the very nacho cheese vat where I’d witnessed a worker’s snot plop and mix into the liquid gold last year, sat two plastic heading dummies. A couple of little cowboys, no older than ten, were trying their hand.

“Want a lesson?” he asked, pointing to the dummies. I did.

When the little guys moved out, we moved in. Cody stood behind me and placed the thick nylon loop in my right hand and the coil in my left. Together, we’d swung the loop once, twice, three times over our heads before he’d said, “release.” The rope landed just left of the target. We tried again and again until, eventually, the rope found its way over the plastic horns. I squealed and turned to Cody, who grinned.

“You’re a natural,” he said. “Were you an athlete?”

“Yep, when I wasn’t singing in the choir, I played basketball and danced on the drill team.”

“’Course you did.”

A man in a red pearl snap walked my way.

“Hey, anthem girl! You were awesome.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“I’m Josh.”

I extended my hand towards Josh’s, but Cody beat me to it.

“Josh,” Cody said. “Cody Crawford. This is Olivia. Yes, she sang the national anthem. Yes, she’s pretty. Yes, she’s with me.”

And from then on, I was.

* * *

Cody barreled down the back road and I belted Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” as the empty Coke bottles that littered the floor played plastic percussion. She grew up off interstate 40 in Checotah and I grew up believing the right combination of blonde hair and talent would make you a star. My singing used to lift Cody out of his moods, like a spell, but I was casting it less reliably lately.

I sang on about cool drinks of water and Cody pointed at himself as if to say, who, me? He lifted my left hand to his mouth to kiss my fingers, one by one, then smiled. I had a habit of looking at his dimples instead of his teeth when he grinned. When I was growing up, kids said dimples meant your parents had sex while your mom was pregnant. I grew up cursing my parents’ sexless marriage every time I smiled in the mirror, eyeing my round and dentless cheeks. Cody’s grins held me steady till the next glimmer of goodness. It’s true what they say about getting by on hope alone. And though I once vowed not to Velcro myself to men the way my mother did after she and dad divorced, promises to myself are always the first to go.

There was another reason I preferred his dimples: the veneers. His wide, glow-in-the- dark white smile was made of porcelain. Just after I moved in, Cody dumped his whisky and Spite on the alligator boots of a guy who hit on me at the bar. Then, he punched him. There was always a punch. The man and his three friends knocked out Cody’s teeth with the end of a pool stick. We were still paying them off.

We held hands for three more songs before pulling up behind a slow-moving minivan. Their bumper sticker read: Do you follow Jesus this close?

Cody tailed them, growing agitated. When the coast was clear, he floored it, making sure to glare into the vehicle as he passed. The dial on the speedometer marched steadily higher. I waited for him to slow now that we were unobstructed, but he didn’t. I weighed my fear of his driving against my fear of his anger before finally saying, “You’re thirty-five over.”

“Look in the back there. See any tape to keep your mouth shut?”

“I just thought—”

“That’s what you get for thinking.”

I finished my beer.

I had a mental filing system. Positive to the front, accessible, tended to. Negative to the back, boxed up and collecting dust. I let the memories I loved play on repeat: us loading the U-Haul—piled up like the Griswolds going on a family vacation—and moving me onto the ranch, the night we watched Tombstone twice in a row, a note he left on the counter that read I love you, I need you, I love you, I need you, scribbled two dozen times. He once came home unexpectedly for lunch and caught me practicing handstands, buck naked, in the kitchen. Our collective laughter felt something like love.

Thirty minutes later, Cody hooked a wide right into a gravel driveway. A dilapidated chicken coop sat a few yards from the road on the left, old wood begging to be swallowed whole by the ground below. At the end of the drive were two rusted vehicles, one with three flat tires and one without a single wheel. A humble house sat to the right. It could have been white once. A barn stood adjacent to it, with a new roping arena about fifty yards behind that.

Cody unhooked the trailer by the arena and turned out the horses. Then he drove toward the house and backed up to the barn, where a rusty flame grill stood. I hopped out, climbed in the truck bed, and flipped open the cooler. The ice was stained with leaked marinade. My hand plunged and produced two beers. I handed one to Cody and kept the second for myself. Don Dub was in the barn, his head in the guts of an old skid-steer and his butt crack peeking from his jeans. He got to his feet and walked our way.

“Cody boy! What’s good?”

“God knows not stock prices.”

“You auctioneer out in Wister this week?”

“Nah,” said Cody. “I’m just doing Tulsa now so I can work my property the rest of the week.”

“You liking Tulsa?”

“Yah, I am. Sold over 8,000 head last week, if you can believe it.”

I downed my beer and opened a second without acknowledgement.

When they finished their conversation, Don Dub said, “Well, hey you! Feel like I haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays. What’ve you been up to?”

“Just working mostly,” I said.

“Still at Warehouse Willy’s?” he asked.

I nodded. I waitressed there a few days a week.

“You know,” he continued, “I took Reba there the last time she was in town. She loved it. And you keeping this one in line?” he pointed at Cody.

“Lord knows I’m trying. It’s a full time job,” I said. Everyone laughed. “Hey, where’s Tammy? I’d like to meet her.”

“If I were a betting man—and I am—I’d say she’s inside fixing food.”

Don Dub began fiddling with the grill as Cody pulled out the steaks. I started towards the house.

“Bring back some knives, would you?” Cody called.

A screen door, peeling away from its wooden frame, opened to a small, square sun room. Dead insects dotted the warped floor. I passed a gaggle of teenage girls—I assumed they were Tammy’s—-walking around in denim cutoffs, legs as big around as my pinky finger, on my way to the kitchen. I’d have sworn there were a dozen, but it was probably the same few popping in and out. They communicated in giggles and eye rolls, a language I’d once known but had forgotten.

Tammy stood over the counter shucking corn. Bags of chips, a pot of artificially yellow mac and cheese, and a colorless casserole sat to her right. Despite the cooking, the room smelled faintly of cigarette smoke, though I saw no butts or ashtrays. Walls never forgive a smoker. I noticed the insect graveyard continued on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. There was no kitchen table. Her shoulders hunched and her stringy copper hair lay flat against her neck.

“Hi y’all, I’m Olivia.” This time, I skipped the handshakes, knowing I’d be in for limp clasps from each of the denim girls. Daddies don’t teach little girls how to shake hands like they do the boys. “Just came to see if I could help in here,” I continued. “They’ve fired up the grill—making steaks.” My natural voice poured out of me like syrup, low and steady, but I heard a higher pitch escaping me now, the one that exposed my self-doubt. I wondered why I’d never met her, why she didn’t feel the need to attend all their ropings the way I did.

“Nah, we’re okay. Thanks, hun.” She smiled a smile that felt like a frown.

For an instant, I was twenty years older and her frown was mine. The kids were mine. Even the casserole was mine. My hips were wider and my hair was thinner and Cody was working, always working, and I was too—what with the kids and the food and the house— but nobody called it work.

I tried to make small talk to distract myself, but the talk was so tiny that hardly anyone spoke. Tammy flitted about, stirring things, and taking frequent sips from a giant Kum & Go cup. It dawned on me that Cody had probably brought other girls around over the years. Perhaps she didn’t think I was worth getting to know because I’d be gone soon, too. I wondered if I was stronger or weaker than the girls who’d come before me. I never could work out if the strength was in the staying or the leaving.

“Oh, shoot—they wanted knives. Got some I can take out?” I said.

“Sure. Come on back when you get tired of the men,” she said with a wink as she handed me a plate full of mismatched cutlery.

* * *

The guys shot the shit. Tammy brought out the food. I piddled, listened, ate. Mostly, I drank. Cans littered the tailgate, once blue mountains turned white in the heat. A cornless cob with a Swiss Army knife stuck into one end rolled to the ground. Paper plates wet with sauce sat in the sun, flies big as my thumbnail drunk on the juice.

I made the familiar trek to the truck bed and opened the ice chest. Empty.

“Hand me one of them,” Cody said.

“All out,” I said.

“How ‘bout you go get us some more?”

I started to say “how about you?” but didn’t. He handed me a wad of bills and his keys. I could have used my waitressing money, but my theory was this was Cody’s way of showing love. If he gave me money, he was my provider. If he was my provider, he loved me.

I’d just put the keys in the ignition when Don Dub rapped on the window.

“You sure you wanna drive, sugar?”

“Yes, sir. I’m fine.” I smiled and waved my hand, both touched and annoyed.

“Well, all right.” His eyes drilled into me. “You be careful.”

I took a cautious left out of the driveway, knowing Cody’s gaze—and maybe Don Dub’s—would follow the truck till it was out of sight, and aimed toward the nearest gas station. I steered with my right knee as I scrolled to my favorite playlist and hit play. “Just send me to hell or New York City, it would be about the same to me,” Hank Williams, Jr. sang. I lasted half a minute before changing it to the Dixie Chicks and a cowboy was taking me away.

I drove and sang wildly, swerving a little, but was spared any witnesses. I closed my left eye to improve my tipsy driving. Are you sure you wanna drive? flicked across the screen of my mind but I changed the channel. I’d learned to select thoughts like titles on the TV guide. Next. Next. My mind settled on the new mare. She needed a name.

Cody loved a good nickname. Don Dub, Tone Bone, Bob Boy, Bucky. If he’d yet to think of one, he added Jo to the end: Willa Jo, Deana Jo, Tommy Jo. Animals were exempt from this rule, though, which is how we ended up with Bay, Gray, and the mare. We’d recently argued about my newest nickname: Big Tits.

“You’re kidding, right?” I’d said.

“Oh come on, biggins, it’s just a joke.” He’d laughed.

I’ve just got to teach him how to treat me, I’d thought. But he was a terrible student.

“Don’t call me that. What happened to Livie? Liv? Babe?”

“You’re so uptight. Remember when you could take a joke?”

“It’s not how people in love speak to each other,” I’d said.

“You’re the expert on that too now, huh?”

He was right. I didn’t know what people in love did, I just had high hopes. He’d had several girlfriends before me—girls I didn’t know much about but compared myself to anyway (Were they prettier? Smarter? Better in bed?). I’d had three relationships before Cody, but they hadn’t lasted long enough to throw around words like love.

I parked the truck and walked into the gas station, focused on my steps and my breath, in through my nose, out through my nose, hoping increased oxygen might expiate the last five beers. I slung a thirty pack on the counter. I pulled out the wad of cash, at least three times what the register read, and decided to grab another case and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine. I paid up and was back on the road.

* * *

When I returned, the men had migrated from the grill to the arena—a cleared, flat plot about half a football field in size—to start roping. It was surrounded by metal fencing with red dirt in the center and a cattle chute in the right corner. I parked the truck and descended the weather-worn slope toward them, booze in hand.

Ten or fifteen steers were in the chute, marching forward with the pokes of a cattle prod. About twenty feet to the right of the chute sat a pile of haphazardly chopped wood from the area’s clearing dropped in the left corner of the arena, thick with earth and God knows what hiding in its belly. The parent stumps lived just beyond the fence.

I imagined a cottonmouth emerging from its wooden home and sending the arena into chaos, horses’ frantic pulls for freedom and the men punctuating the disarray with obscenities. Me, sitting on the metal fence watching—my imagined-self composed. I wished for Cody’s stolidity to dissolve into instinct, his fear response taking the reins. Once, his hired-hand threw a dead black snake into Cody’s lap while he drove in the field behind the house—a harmless prank, he thought. Cody opened the door and jumped out of the driver’s seat like he’d pushed the eject button. The truck continued in drive until the hired hand scrambled to get his foot on the brake. Cody fired him.

I surveyed the scene. Cody and Don Dub were already on their horses. Bay and the mare were tethered inside the arena.

“Bigs! Go tie her up on the trailer,” he gestured at the mare, who was in a tizzy.

Her nostrils flared as she stomped her hooves in a flustered tap dance. A name popped into my head: Calamity Jane. CJ. A rowdy broad in a sea of Wild Bill Hickoks. I was pleased with myself.

The uneven earth around the trailer felt treacherous for my beer-brained steps. I found the most level spot and tied CJ’s rope to the metal. Over, under, through, pull. I remained at her side but kept my hands to myself to keep her from spooking. I like a girl who makes it clear when she doesn’t want to be touched. With her, even the men listened.

“Bye oh bye, oh bye, oh bye,” I sang. As I hummed, CJ settled. I raised my hand to stroke her neck, keeping my limbs in her sight. A fly traveled the air between us, climbing and diving like a fighter pilot in battle, but I didn’t risk a swat. I studied her long face, her lightly tanned coat that blackened midleg like knee socks. I eyed the arch in her back, with its brown dorsal stripe, and the power of her haunches. My hand continued its rhythmic graze. I lost myself in her for a time before I walked away, entering the arena just as the shoot opened and all at once a sea of fur, rope, and dust.

* * *

Tammy and her girls brought us some snickerdoodle cookies and watched Don Dub and Cody practice. My job was to turn out the steers and time the run. Don Dub went first. He was to rope the steer around the neck or horns. If and when he did that, Cody was to rope the steer’s back two legs.

“Wanna get a run in, Tam?” Don Dub said after Cody missed his mark in the last round.

“Nah, I’m okay,” she said, waving her hand.

“Go, Mom! Ya! Do it!” the girls said.

“I’m really more of a heeler,” Tammy said. “I wouldn’t want to put Cody out of a job.”

Cody shrugged. “I’ll take a cookie break. You can ride Gray if you want.”

After Cody dismounted, Tammy climbed in the saddle and took her place in the heeler’s spot. I released the steer. Tammy came out swinging, her lasso as practiced as any roper I’d seen. She guided Gray with ease, angling him at precisely the right moment when her husband roped the horns. She delivered her loop and cinched it around both legs.

I looked at my phone. “That was the fastest time today!”

The girls cheered.

“What can I say, I married me a cowgirl,” Don Dub said.

“You do this a lot, Tammy?” I asked.

“Oh, no. It’s been, gosh, probably a year or more. I traded kids for horses a long time ago. But I like knowing I’ve still got it.”

“Cody ever hangs up his rope, I’d say you have a fine replacement,” I said to Don Dub. I wished I could lasso the words right back in my mouth.

“Fuck right off, Bigs.”

“I was just playing,” I said.

“Cody knows better than to think I’d replace him with my old lady. Right, bud?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Cody said, opening another beer.

Tammy and her kids said their goodbyes and made their way back to the house. It was when I watched her walk away that I understood how we were different. She knew when to go. Before Cody got back on Gray, I whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“You always are,” he said.

* * *

Cody and Don Dub went at it for a few hours. The horses were wet with sweat and beer percolated from our pores. I corralled the steers, fruitlessly pursued conversation, and trotted Bay between runs. The sun and the booze were getting low.

I glanced towards the trailer and saw a void where CJ once stood. My eyes darted and my heart sped as I turned, hoping to spot her munching on dead grass. I spun one last circle before trudging towards Cody, inhaling more than I exhaled, as if preparing for my oxygen supply to dwindle. My palms dampened as my mouth dried.

“I don’t know,” I said after I’d pointed out her absence. “I’m—I’m sorry. She was… I thought she was tied up tight.” I dug the nails of my right hand deep into my left forearm as I spoke. “I tugged on it. I swear to God. I guess I—” my face was hot and my voice, too fast and high, broke. I dropped my right hand, but four red and broken half-moons were etched into the flesh below my left elbow. I tried to count my breaths.

Cody dismounted Gray. I stumbled backwards, but not quickly enough as his boot met my right toes. He kicked dust my way and barreled towards the gate, head swiveling in search.

“Goddamnit, Olivia, can’t you ever get out of the way.”

I took Gray’s lead rope and walked him toward the fence to restrain him while Cody hunted the mare. I’d failed once, but standing idly was more humiliating than a second try.

Don Dub appeared at my side. His cracked and calloused hand reached for mine as he took the rope from my grip. The dirt under his fingernails could’ve been older than me. I didn’t meet his eyes.

“Looky here, this is how you tie ‘em so they can’t run off.” He instructed me on a proper quick release knot, which I’d attempted earlier. “Make a loop, come round the back, make another loop, put this loose end here—uh huh, just like that.” He tugged. “Don’t ever put your hand in here when you’re looping through cause if that horse spooks, you’re gonna end the day with one less hand than you started with.”

I nodded. He sandwiched my right hand between his and patted silently. Half a minute passed before he released my palm and walked away.

When I looked up, I saw Cody on top of the slope. He remained still for a few moments, then about-faced and walked towards us. When he reached the arena, his left boot found Gray’s stirrup and his right leg swung over the saddle in a seasoned swoop.

I pulled the quick release knot Don Dub and I’d just tied as Cody gripped his rope, hung over the saddle’s horn, in his right hand. He aimed Gray up the slope and, when they reached the top, exited the driveway in a gallop and turned right on the county road. I followed on foot but turned left while Don Dub searched behind the arena. Five minutes in, I saw nothing. I began to wonder what I’d do if I did see her—would I holler “she’s here?” Would I let her go?

“CJ,” I called. “Where are you, girl?” Saying her name was useless, of course, since I was the only one who knew it. The yells might even send her further away. I called louder. I whistled.

Eventually, I turned back towards the house. I’d just started up the hill when the flutter of a mane caught my eye. About fifty feet ahead, in a small clearing, she grazed. My first thought was to keep walking. My second: a car could hit her if she moved back into the road. My third: Cody. I could’ve pretended to look for her and instead stayed behind to drink that bottle of sparkling I left in the car. I should’ve. I watched as she kept her head down, tearing grass from the earth and swishing flies with her tail and the thrash of her head. She stopped and turned back in my direction. I smiled at her as if to say, Don’t worry, it’s just me.

Like a creep offering candy to a little kid or Judas’ kiss, I should’ve known then what I’d do. I thought of the money, of all the rest that had broken and would break, of the broken thing I feared the most.

When I reached the top of the hill, I waved Cody over, triumphant. I could lose but I could also find. I pointed and he rode past me, yellow nylon swinging. Even then, I hoped she’d outrun him, eluding the loop he threw for her neck, the one he’d cinch too tight when it met her flesh.

I walked back to the arena. A few minutes later, Don Dub returned, too. Five minutes passed, then ten, before Cody and the horses came into view.

CJ halted, eyeballs bugged and legs rigid, a few feet behind Cody and Gray. The yellow rope was around her neck. Cody dug his heels into Gray’s ribs, who jolted forward, pulling a stumbling CJ with him. She threw her head back instinctively but her need for oxygen won in the end and she followed down the slope into the arena.

Cody didn’t look at me as he dismounted, nor as he tied up Gray. He didn’t look at me as he wrenched CJ forward or when he whipped her on the back with the rope, producing a thwack with a whelp to match. But when she bucked, tossing her head, teeth bared, legs in the air and dust whirling, her front left hoof meeting his stomach, his gaze found mine.

Cody stumbled backwards as I gasped and Don Dub said, “Shit, son. You okay?”

“Son of a bitch,” Cody said and got to his feet.

In one swoop, he hoisted a log from the pile and wood met flesh. The blow sent her off balance and she threw open her mouth, like a scream with no sound. He shortened the rope as she struggled. Blood pooled below her left eye before breaking into a stream down her khaki coat. I wanted to stop it, to fling myself in front of her. I wanted her wildness to save her in the end, for her to kick him away, warrior that she was, and free herself. I didn’t. She didn’t. Don Dub turned away.

Cody swung the log a second time and the air stunk of wood and flesh and salt and iron. And with that, she wasn’t wild anymore.

Ashley Thorup is a home birth midwife and mother of two daughters living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her writing has been featured in the
NYC Pride Guide and The Arkansas Traveler. She was the recipient of a Paragraph Summer Residency and a Getaway Fellow. She received second place in the 2021 Tennessee Williams Festival Fiction Contest, chosen by Minrose Gwin. She has an MFA from New York University. 


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