A Horse of a Different Colour

A short story

by Brennig Jones
December 2004

"What's this?" I asked.

"It's a horse!" retorted the old man indignantly.

I looked again. It was still an ugly, black, tired-looking and slightly lame mule that stood, like us, in the searing heat of the 11 o'clock Spanish sun. I tried to respond respectfully and gently - I had only met the old man the previous evening in the local bar.

"Sir, this isn't an Andalucian horse. This is a mule."

The man shrugged and said, "You can ride her if you like."

Not wanting to offend the old man, I politely asked how much he wanted for the mule. I was stunned with his reply.

"Four thousand five hundred Euros."

I could probably buy three Andalucian yearlings for that sum.

Declining, I explained to him that I was looking for a horse for my wife to bring on and ride. I offered my thanks for his time and turned to walk to the car.

"I have another!" he called after me.

I turned and looked into his weather-beaten face and sighed.

"Is it a horse?"

"Yes."

"Is it cheaper than four thousand five hundred Euros?"

He gave me a near-toothless grin, patted the mule affectionately on her rump and beckoned me to follow him around the back of his cortijo.

In the shade of a large fig tree was tethered a magnificent young horse. He was perhaps two-years-old; a light dapple-grey coloured Andalucian colt with stunning conformation and build. He was perfect.

"Is pretty, no?"

I could only nod and whisper "Si".

"You like to see him move?" asked the man, smiling.

"Yes, that might be a good idea."

He untied the lead-rein and walked the horse down the dusty track away from me; turned and with a surprising burst of speed jogged back while the colt trotted alongside him. The colt moved like a dream.

This was the fifth equine I'd looked at in two days - not counting the mule - and he stood head and shoulders above everything else I'd seen.

He had an intelligent head, alert, questioning eyes and a wonderful expression that combined intelligence and arrogance. And he moved beautifully. He had slightly extravagant, floating paces, not the full-blown Spanish paces that are so often the product of crafty shoeing. This young horse simply flowed into his natural gait.

The man finished trotting the horse and wheezed his way back to me, slightly sweaty from the exertion.

While he hoisted his trousers to their normal level and retied the bailer twine around his waist to keep them there, I inspected the colt in minute detail. Eyes, nose, teeth, tongue, hips, back, spine, ribs and legs; I could find no fault with this magnificent creature.

"Has he worked yet?" I asked.

The man gave a negative shrug. "I am too busy for such things," he said. "Working my finca takes all of my time. And my sons, they don't help an old man anymore. They want to spend all of their time riding on their motorbikes in the village; they don't like the mountain life."

I echoed my disappointment in his sons with a loud tut.

"Has he had shoes on yet?"

"Why would I put shoes on a horse I do not have time to work? No. But he would be good for shoes, I know this. Instead he spends all his time up here, at the finca, getting fat and not working. If my sons were here to help me ..."

He let the sentence conclude itself.

The magnificent grey colt flicked its tail at a fly buzzing around its hind legs, whilst regarding me with a haughty stare.

"How much?" I asked, fearing the worst.

"Five hundred Euros." he replied.

I thought I'd misheard.

"Que?"

"Five hundred Euros." he said again.

I instantly agreed and asked if I could give him the cash when I collected the horse tomorrow.

He thought about it then said yes. I watched intently as he retied the horse to its fig tree and later I drove home filled with the knowledge that I'd found a real bargain.

At 11 o'clock the next day I drove the 4x4 and horse-trailer up the long, winding and almost vertical track into the Sierras, and turned up the trail to the old man's finca.

I braked to a stop in the thick brown dust outside the dirty-coloured cortijo, climbed out and lowered the ramp at the back of the horse-trailer. Then I went to find the old man.

He was sitting in the middle of a crop of dried, shrivelled-looking beans, as he spliced plastic irrigation pipes together. He wore the same brown corduroy trousers as yesterday and what seemed to be the same brown checked shirt; the same battered Panama hat perched on his head.

"¡Hola!" I said.

"¿Que Pasa?" he replied.

"Things are good," I responded. "And with you?"

"I'm busy; there is much work for me to do."

But he stopped working on his irrigation pipes and rose from his seat.

We moved to the shade of an old chestnut tree and discussed his crop of beans (better than last year but last year was very bad). Then we spoke of his sons who weren't ever going to work his finca, and lastly talked about what his future options for the house and land were. Through his eyes things looked less than promising.

Eventually he stood, dusted his trousers down and said, "Let's get on with it then."

I followed him around the back of his cortijo where the old broken-down mule and the handsome young Andalucian colt were tethered together underneath the fig tree.

I admired the superb Spanish horse again. With his long mane, shiny coat and proud, haughty looks he seemed even more wonderful than I remembered from yesterday.

The old man untied the colt and handed me the lead rein. I led the young horse around the corner to the 4x4 where he allowed himself to be led calmly up the ramp and into the trailer, where he started tucking in to the haynet I'd prepared for him.

I was walking towards the rear of the trailer to raise the tail ramp when I heard a mule's soulful bray. The colt wickered in response and there was another bray. Inside the trailer was a stamping of hooves and the young horse reversed down the tail ramp at great speed, turned and trotted around the corner out of sight.

I ran around the cortijo. Colt and mule were standing together again, underneath the fig tree.

I walked up to the colt, picked up the lead rein that was still attached to the broken safety string and led the horse back around the corner and into the trailer once more.

This time I'd got halfway towards the rear ramp when the mule brayed, the horse wickered, the mule brayed again and the horse reversed out of the trailer at a trot, turned and had the cheek to exhibit some lovely Spanish paces as he trotted back around the far side of the cortijo.

I looked at the old man for an explanation.

He gave a small shrug and said, "The colt, he thinks the mule is his mother. His real mother died of colic, she was his wet nurse, she raised him."

I began to see the light.

"Has the horse ever been away from the mule?"

"Oh no," said the old man. "I have no time for such things, I work the land by myself and my sons, they don't help an old man any more, they spend all their time down in the village with motorbikes and girls."

I was beginning to like the sound of his sons.

We tried to load the colt eight times more.

Each time we were almost successful; the young horse allowed himself to be led into the trailer but the old mule called him back before I could raise the ramp.

On the final attempt I (the old man leaving everything to me) almost succeeded in raising the ramp to shoulder height before the horse barrelled his way out at full speed in reverse, almost damaging both of us in his desire to return to his 'mother'.

It became obvious to me that I had one course of action if I wanted to get home in time for tea.

"So the old mule," I tried to sound casual. "Is she still for sale?"

"Oh yes. Four thousand five hundred Euros."

What choice did I have? I paid him.

Then we loaded the mule.

Then we loaded the colt.

And just to be safe I left the ramp down for ten minutes before we left. Both equines stood in the trailer, chewing contentedly on their haynets, looking at each other over the partition.

And that's why I arrived home at six o'clock that evening with a glorious two-year-old Andalucian colt which attracted many admiring looks over the coming years, and a geriatric three-legged, ugly old mule which made me the butt of much good-natured derision from my friends and neighbours.

 

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