A Long-Forgotten Madness
By Charles Matthias
Part III: Très nerveux
William had not slept well in the bed of his childhood. It was still comfortable, but it felt slightly cramped to him now. It also had the faintest musk of the horses. Likely, in his youth he had borne that musk from the stables into his own room. Back then he did not mind. But now it bothered him – bothered him so much that he’d been unable to get more than a few hours of sleep.
Regardless, there was a certain pleasant aroma to the air when he did finally rise to greet the newly risen sun. Where the sun would have been up for some time in Chicago at his usual hour of rising, it was only just now dawning in Montana. There was a sense of familiarity to the clinging sheets and warm quilt as he pushed himself out of bed. His toes gripped the sable carpet beneath them as bleary eye he traced the familiar steps to his closet.
William was not a morning person by nature, and so it was only the rituals of morning that helped him find his clothes and get dressed. The scent of bacon and eggs drifting up from the kitchen downstairs finally tantalized his senses enough to wake him. Smiling, he strode to the mirror and regarded himself, the hollow thumping of his boots a strong counterpoint.
Glancing down at his feet he saw that he’d put on the boots of his childhood once more, the memory of their shape as crisp to him as the sensation of wearing them now. He’d even donned his old riding pants, which felt quite tight on him. Startled, William ran his hands across his otherwise normal shirt and grimaced. After twenty years, could he relearn old habits so quickly? This disturbing thought was replaced by one even more ridiculous. What if he had never left? What if all those years in Chicago were nothing more than a fever dream brought on by the twin deaths of his mother and younger brother?
Grimacing, William shook such silliness from his mind and leaned against his bed. Lifting one foot, he reached out his hands to remove the boot. But the sound of the horses in the stables caught at his ears. One of them was neighing loudly, and he could almost imagine the scene in his head. One stallion, more eager than most to go out into the meadow, was calling out his impatience to those in the house who were now rising from slumber.
The sound sent a shiver up his spine. William sat still, taking his breaths slowly. Why did it scare him so? In the light of the new day, all that he’d seen and thought yesterday seemed ridiculous to him now. Yes, he’d had good reasons for leaving twenty years ago. And he had a life in Chicago that he would be going back to. But he was here in Montana. At the very least he could see the horses one last time. Besides, he assured himself, a man faces his fear, no matter how irrational.
Leaving his boots on for now, William crossed to the closet, and pulled out his old riding jacket from underneath the plastic slip cover. It was a little small on his chest, but he could still fit into it. The fabric was tough from neglect, but it still held that familiar equine scent that he had once so loved. Satisfied that he was dressed for a stable encounter, William tried to move as quietly as he could out into the hall. The light was on under his sister’s door, but he had no desire to speak to Ana just yet. He crept down the stairs, walking on the balls of his feet as much as the boots would allow him. The familiar black and white pictures of his grandparents who had started the ranch lined the walls, as did a few snapshots of their prize horses.
Seeing those old pictures stirred something in him, and he could feel a renewed energy that he could not quite define. A longing did fill him, a fervent wish that things had never needed to change. Suddenly William felt for all the world that he should give everything up in Chicago and come back home to raise horses as his father had intended. He owed it to the memory of his youth after all, didn’t he?
When he reached the foyer, he could hear Mrs. Pritchard’s voice humming from the kitchen. She was definitely cooking. And a lovely meal at that. Ana would be down shortly for her breakfast. William set his hand to the front door and quietly stepped out onto the porch.
Just as the sun had been setting behind the house, it now was staring him full in the face. He held up one hand to shield his eyes from its brilliance. Blinking as he set his boot heels down upon the wooden porch with a solid thunk, he tried to bring the world back into focus. Before him, the expanse of blue sky seemed an endless dome that stretched to infinity. He took a deep breath, and felt his lungs fill with air. For several moments he just stood like that, marvelling at the landscape.
And then the neighing of the horses caught at his ears again. Summoned, William took the steps two at a time and circled back around the northern side of the house, through the shade, and across the wide freshly mowed lawn. He walked along the fencing, feeling the earth beneath his boots with some satisfaction. The fields beyond the fence were empty still, and the hills rolled away towards the horizon like the waves of the sea.
The stables were painted white with a high roof. The stalls each had a side facing door that came up to his chest. The top doors were closed still, though they would be opened soon by Old Job once he came out to attend to them. It struck him as odd that the grizzled old man had not yet done so. Normally he was up with the dawn to look after his equine charges. Perhaps there had been a problem somewhere else on the ranch? Regardless, the door were closed and one of the stallions was becoming quite irate at being cooped up.
William ran his fingers over the aged wood, though the sensations were not as familiar as he had hoped. The paint was new, covering up many of the old crenellations that he had become accustomed to in his youth. Still, William traced his fingers over the latches, listening until he stood before the agitated horse’s door. He flung the latch open with a crack, and had to take a sudden step back as the door was pushed open form the inside by an impetuous chestnut stallion.
William smiled, the rich musk drawing into his lungs like nectar. The equine brown reached outward, dark eyes searching him, while his neck pressed against the lower door. “Here boy,” William said softly, holding out his hand. Those prodigious lips scoured his youth- hardened hands, though the eyes never seemed to leave the man’s face. Heart throbbing deeply, William reached his other hand forward and ran it over the bridge of the stallion’s face.
“Did you want to go for a ride?” William asked, as if he were speaking to a secret lover of a tryst. The stallion nuzzled his nose into William’s shoulder in reply.
A laugh escaped his lips, and William nodded, patting the warm beast along the side of his neck. “I’ll be back in a moment, boy.” The horse had to be only a few years old, but he was already fully grown and in magnificent health. Old Job was doing an excellent job caring for him.
He found the tack exactly where he expected to, in the whitewashed shed facing the stables. The tough leather was familiar to his fingers. William let all thought leave his mind, saturating himself in childhood memory instead. He was not in his late thirties anymore. He was still a teenager, hoping to take one of the horses for a brisk morning ride before breakfast.
The stallion was eager still when William returned, neighing his delight at the sight of the tack. William fitted the halter over the chestnut horse’s face before opening the lower door. The horse quickly stepped out, and William had to hold the reins tightly to keep him from rushing off to the fields. “Easy there,” William cooed. “Easy.”
The horse calmed at William’s comforting touch, and waited as the man laid first a blanket over his back, and then a saddle. As William was securing the saddle in place, he took a moment to inspect the stallion’s underbelly and legs. All looked to be in good condition he thought in admiration. All his family’s horses were well cared for. They received only the best, as they ought to. It was a privilege to ride them, and to touch them, and to smell like them.
William’s hands were nearly shaking then as he pulled himself up into the saddle. His body, aged though he wished otherwise, was heavier than he recalled. Still, he mounted, and saw the world once more from horseback. He gave the stallion a small nudge with his boots, and the stallion jumped forward into a steady trot. The stable and shed passed behind them, until they were riding through the soft grasses and wide fields of his family’s ranch. The grasses were cropped low here, but over the rise, he saw a field that had been kept fallow.
A grin etched into his face, William gave the reins a snap, and the horse responded enthusiastically. The air rushed past him, the bright Montana morning filled him, and his exuberant equine companion shared a taste of his power. A cheer welled up from his lungs and burst into the air, a cry of exultant pleasure. William laughed loudly as they galloped hard over that land, the muscles moving beneath him and through his legs the faintest brush against something greater.
It took less then a minute for the pair to reach the hill’s rise. He drew the stallion to a stop. The horse fought against the reins, disapproving of the idea, but he stopped anyway, just as William had asked him to. Atop the rise, William looked back and forth, breathing heavily. The land lay around him quiet, but waking to the morning. The grasses were golden in the morning sun, long shadows beginning to fade already. Dew tipped many blades, though as always, there was a dryness to the air that drew out such moisture.
William ran his fingers in the horse’s mane, and felt the exhilaration lurking beneath the hide. Looking back, he could see that Old Job Pritchard was finally up to tend to the other horses in the stables. He had on his Stetson, and waved to William. William waved back, and then turned once more to the open fields. “Ready for some more?”
He barely had to say the words before the stallion was running once more. Hooves pounding at the grass and loam. A heavy heart beat there between William’s legs, a powerful one whose rhythm he could feel then in his mind. William leaned forward, bracing himself into that run as his hair was caught by the wind. The old leather jacket clung tightly to him, the ends snapping in the wind sounding like applause. And for a time, the William of Chicago was lost to this place in Montana.
When next William looked back at the house, he realized that they had ridden quite a ways out on their pasture land. It took several minutes before they were able to ride back. The ride had filled him with a familiar hunger. There had been the scent of eggs and bacon being made in the kitchen. It was time to eat. And so they rode home.
The other horses had already been let out into the fields, William saw. He slowed the stallion down to a gentle trot, passing nearby to several of the older horses. Two in particular caught his eye. One of them was a fairly old bay mare that looked vaguely familiar. He smiled slightly as he recognized her despite her age. It was Aloysha, the mare that they had named after their mother. She was a bit over twenty now, he realized. And laying upon the grass as she did, already resting, he knew that she did not have many years left.
Standing next to her though was another horse of advanced years. This one a stallion, and with a sable coat, he looked far more lively, though still venerable. Both of them looked at him as he passed. The sable stallion whinnied at him, and then began to approach. William pulled his chestnut to a stop, and looked at the unfamiliar horse. He held out one hand, but the horse ignored it and pressed his face up against his side, looking up at him as if asking some question he ought to know.
William looked back into the horse’s eyes, even as he ran his finger over the creature’s mane. There was a sadness in those eyes he thought. Nay, a rebuke. William felt a sickness growing suddenly in the pit of his stomach. The animal continued to stare, no longer speaking or stomping his hooves. The rebuke faded though, and there was something else there. Something far more gentle, and subtly familiar.
The sickness in his stomach intensified suddenly as he realized just why he’d found the expression familiar. He gave the chestnut a kick to the sides to jolt him forward. The sable did not follow, but watched him the whole way. William waved once again when he saw Old Job currying down one of the horses still at the stables.
“Took old Sean there out for a ride, didya?” Job’s hard face was filled with a smile. “He seems to like you.”
William nodded and dismounted. He took a deep breath, even as revulsion over took him. The memories of that final year had come back to him, and once more, he remembered his brother’s suicide, and why he had fled to Chicago. Suddenly, the boots, riding pants, and riding vest all felt confining and filthy to him.
“He’s a good steed,” William replied, speaking loudly, remembering what his sister had said about Job’s hearing the night before. “It was a pleasure to ride him.”
“Ana dotes on him too much. He’s impossible to handle until he gets a ride.” Job took the reins and was patting Sean on the side of the face, cooing softly to him. “Ana used to ride him, and Scotsman, the sable there next to Aloysha. But since Jonathan died, she hasn’t really been out of the house much.”
William nodded slowly, looking back to the house. He really did not want his sister to see him dressed this way. “It’s only been a couple of weeks. I’m sure she’ll come back out again soon.” He turned back to the ranch hand, and saw that Job had already removed the saddle and halter form Sean. The chestnut stallion was prancing back towards the other horses. Strangely, he went first to the sable, Scotsman Job had said, that had unsettled William.
Shivering, William took a few more steps towards the stable so that he could no longer see the horses in the field. “She came out last night didn’t she?” William asked, leaning in the main doorway. Job had gone into the darkened interior where a few of the horse’s remained. There was what appeared to be a two week old colt dancing around his legs. Job was brushing the colt’s mother who stood nearby watching her child.
“She likes to check on Beth and this little feller from time to time.” Job’s voice was soft then, soothing almost. When the colt spotted William, the animal stopped its prancing and stared stiffly. William shifted uneasily. The gangly colt started to walk towards him.
“Well, I’m going back inside to get something to eat, Job. See you later.” William did not wait to hear the man’s reply, or for the colt to near him any more. He turned and walked as quickly as he could back up the path towards the house. He would be seen if he went through the rear door in the kitchen, and so he went back to the front door instead. As quietly as he could with the boots on.
Grimacing as they thunked hollowly on the porch, he bent down and pulled them off his feet. They came free, though the leather sunk inward regretfully. With his boots in one hand, William walked through the doorway, still as quiet as he could be.
It was of course, ill-timing that let Ana see him. She had just come out of the dining room, and turned when he stepped through the front door. “Will! Oh, you do look good that way.” She smiled then. “Did the boots not fit right?”
William growled under his breath, but shook his head. “They fit fine. I’m just going to get changed is all. They are not as comfortable as they used to be.”
“Oh don’t do that,” Ana said, her smile fond. “You look like a cowboy that way. All that’s missing is your hat. Didn’t you find it in your closet?”
“I saw my hat. Didn’t think to put it on this morning,” William replied, looking at the stairs longingly, but Ana was in front of them blocking his way.
Ana looked him over once more and continued to smile. “Did you enjoy your ride? I saw you from my window riding Sean.”
“It brought back a lot of memories,” William said, allowing himself half a smile. “Now if you don’t mind, Sis, I’m going to go up and get changed. I haven’t even shaved yet. When was Mr. Mansbridge supposed to get here?”
Ana’s smile faded and she crossed her arms over her chest. “Two hours. Sit down and have some breakfast at least before you change. Everybody else is in the kitchen.”
“Except Job.. But I guess he’s already eaten.”
Ana nodded and then looked to the kitchen. “Please, Will. You look just fine that way, I promise. I kind of like seeing you dressed that way too. Please Will, just have a little bit of home before you go. I want things to be like they were before.”
“They can’t go back that way, Sis. You know that. We’ve changed too much since we were kids.” He paused a moment and then took a deep breath. “I leave for Chicago once everything is squared away. And that is not going to change. But if it will make you happy, I’ll wait until after I’ve had a bite to eat before I change.”
Her smile was slow but certain. “I know we can’t have it all back, Will. But at least we have each other for today. Right?”
William grunted what might have been “Right” as he bent over and pulled the boots back on.
Breakfast had been quite good, though he’d had to endure questions from both Elliot and Elliot’s father Gareth. Gareth Pritchard was almost ten years younger than William, but already looked haggard and worn from working as a ranch hand. Elliot had all the boisterous energy common to children of seven. And he was just as much in love with horses as William had been at his age.
Their questions did not pry much at least. There was that certain understanding that passed between men who were used to the cold winter’s wind. A silent communion, that both had leaned forward into the wind and embraced the cold, and made their life through it. Even if William had chosen Chicago instead of the ranch, that wind was there. His attire had not drawn much comment either, thankfully, although it had met with an approving nod from Gareth. Old Mrs. Pritchard who had done all the cooking, did not seem to notice or care.
As promised, after breakfast Ana let him be to go change. Even though he had no wish to be in the riding pants or vest, he still carefully returned all the clothes to their proper places in his closet. No, not his. This closet was not his, nor was this room. This closet and room belonged to a seventeen year old boy who was no more. He grimaced, but reminded himself of all that he now had out in Chicago. That was home, and not this ranch.
He selected a dress shirt and slacks, and then pulled the suit jacket he’d worn the day before over his shoulders. The worst case scenario book poked him in the ribs. He’d left it in the pocket the day before. Slightly amused, he took the book out and tossed it on the bed. It really was too bad that it did not have anything about dealing with relatives, he thought wryly once again.
After changing, he had sat in the parlour waiting for Mr. Mansbridge’s arrival. He engaged in more polite conversation with Gareth, but the ranch hand was eager to get outside to help his father a little bit. So, in silence, William waited. His eyes cast over the many family pictures that lined the walls. Many of them were accompanied by prize or especially loved horses. His heart ached as he stared, eyes falling on his mother, his father, and on Scott.
Of all the people he knew growing up, Scott had been his closest companion. They had shared most everything, and had come to each other’s defence many times. But after their mother had finally succumbed to cancer, all that changed. Scott withdrew, spending more time in the stables by himself. William sat there wishing he could understand how one death could so destroy a family. There was so much happiness in those pictures, but no more in the home.
That thought clung to him as the minutes dragged past. It kept his mind occupied even when the lawyer did finally arrive. Mr. Mansbridge had been the family attorney for many years. The last time William had seen the lawyer had been just after Scott’s suicide. Once, he had been a friend to the family. Now, he was just one more crow come to roost over the dead.
He was dressed in a black business suit carrying a dark briefcase. His hair had greyed, and there was a heaviness and uncertainty to his eyes. “William. My, it has been a long time hasn’t it?”
“Indeed it has,” William said as he greeted the lawyer at the door. “Do come in. I’m sure my sister will be with us shortly.”
And Ana was with them a moment later. She was still dressed in her country clothes when she came down the stairs. Mr. Mansbridge looked impatient to begin, and so the three of them retired to the parlour for the reading of the will. Conspicuously, he thought, Ana sat on the opposite side of the room from William. He sighed heavily and listened to the droning tone of the lawyer.
“Being the executor of Mr. Jonathan Stanchinsky’s Last Will and Testament, I am instructed to read this only in the presence of his living relatives. That being you, Mrs. Ana Stanchinsky, and you, Mr. William Stanchinsky.”
Most of it was dull legalese naturally, but even that seemed somehow to clash with the ranch, as if the words of the law held now sway here. William glanced occasionally at Ana, wondering what his sister might be thinking. Did she want everything? She was welcome to it. William would of course not mind some liquid assets, but he did not want the ranch itself. That was the last thing in the world that he wanted.
And so naturally, it was exactly what he got.
“Excuse me?” William said, sitting forward suddenly. “Can you read that again?”
The lawyer did so. “I, Jonathan Stanchinsky, bequeath my entire estate, all assets and all responsibilities, to my son, William Stanchinsky.” Mr. Mansbridge looked up from the heavy paper. “He is giving everything to you, William.”
“But...” William began, feeling his heart suddenly racing. All of this was his? But he didn’t want it!
Ana, if she was surprised, did not show it. “Oh, that’s wonderful, Will! Now you can come back here and run the ranch just like you always wanted to. Isn’t that wonderful, Will?”
“No!” Will snapped, feeling edgy once more. “I don’t want the ranch, and you know that!”
Mr. Mansbridge coughed lightly. “I can help you make any further arrangements should you wish to change ownership of the ranch. But first we must finish this reading.”
“Of course,” Ana said, her smile still upon her lips. “Please continue.”
William still felt the jolt of the news. The ranch was his? He’d give it to Ana. He was not going to let his father, no matter how much he still loved him, drag him back here forever. No matter how much he enjoyed that ride this morning, this was not his home. He had to remember that.
“In the event that my son William is no longer living, then I bequeath my estate to my daughter Ana Stanchinsky. If my daughter Ana is no longer alive, then the estate falls to Job Pritchard or his nearest surviving relative.” More legalese followed, and then a minute later, Mr. Mansbridge set the papers down before him. “Now, I have all of the legal paperwork that will transfer the ranch to you, William, once you are ready to sign.”
“I am not taking the ranch.” William said. “I do not want it.”
“Please, Will,” Ana said, her eyes boring into him once more. There was something darker in them, some anger that he could not understand. “Please stay. Dad always hoped you’d come home and take over for him. It’s what he had dreamed of for twenty years.”
“This is not my home, Sis,” William snapped. “I don’t care what he wanted. I do not want this ranch. I don’t want this house. I don’t want these stupid horses. And I certainly don’t want to spend the rest of my life taking care of them!”
Ana bolted up from her chair then, anger filling her eyes. “How dare you! How dare you say those things! You loved this place! Every one here, loves you, Will, and you are just being selfish! Fine! Go back to Chicago! Go back and leave everyone who cares about you behind. If you want to give me the ranch fine, I’ll take it.” And with that, she turned and stormed out of the parlour.
Mr. Mansbridge was quietly stuffing papers back in his briefcase. William sighed heavily and fell back in his chair. His breath left him suddenly, and he slumped there defeated, lifeless as a rag doll. “I’m sorry,” he said, feeling both shamed and tired.
The lawyer cleared his throat after a moment and then stood up. “I do not have the papers to transfer ownership of the estate to your sister with me today. I will have to return tomorrow so that you can do so. For now, would you see me to my car, William?”
Sighing once more, William forced his body to stand. He nodded to the lawyer, and together, the two of them left the heated air of the parlour behind. There was a serious look to the lawyer’s face, and a disturbed one as well. When they left the front door and had walked down the porch steps, Mr. Mansbridge turned slightly to face him. “Tell me, William. How much have you heard about your family since you left?”
“Very little,” William admitted just as quietly. There was a strange intensity to their lawyer now, as if he were burning inside. “I talked to my Dad perhaps every other year. I hadn’t talked with Ana for twenty years until yesterday.”
Mr. Mansbridge nodded as if he had expected that. “I’ve been a friend to your family for many years now, William. I’ve seen them change and grow over the years. I do not say this as a lawyer, but as a friend. Your sister has been angry with you for a very long time, ever since you left in fact.”
“I had guessed that.”
They reached the blue sedan parked in the driveway. Mr. Mansbridge fumbled in his pocket for his keys. “Your father did hold out hope that you’d come home. Even to death. But I think it probably wiser if you return to Chicago. Not all is well here I’m afraid.”
At that, William’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean?”
“Well, there are rumours. No, perhaps I shouldn’t say that.”
“Tell me, what rumours? What are you talking about?” He wasn’t whispering anymore.
The lawyer grimaced. He turned to his car and opened the door. “Your father died two weeks ago falling down the steps. He broke his back in the fall. Death came for him only a few minutes later. He choked on his own blood. Ana found him just before he died.”
He tossed the briefcase into the passenger seat and then slid in behind te wheel. “The rumour is that he did not fall down those steps. That he was pushed.” Mr. Mansbridge looked back at the front porch for a moment before returning his eyes to William. “I’d be very careful if I were you.”
William swallowed heavily and could only nod. For several minutes after the car had driven away, he could only stand there and stare down the road.
Onto Part IV: Poco agitato!
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