Nels Hanson "Shadaroba"

“That was ‘Cry-i-i-i-ing,’ on your big K-MAKE Orbison Weekend!”

I listened, then tapped the painted wood. I tried the knob but the door was locked. It used to be people left their houses open, even when they were gone to the coast, out of town for the week. Now everyone locked his own room, put bars on the windows.

I heard the back and forth spiraling sway of what sounded like Indian snake charmer music.

“Where the Nile flows/ And the moon glows—”

“Kate? Are you in there?”

“On the silent sand/ Of an ancient land—”

There was no answer. The room was empty, I could tell, the radio played alone. Kate had gone, down the trellis to her lover, the father—

“When a dream dies,/ And a heart cries,/ ‘Shadaroba’ is the word/ They whisper low.”

I leaned my shoulder against the door.

“‘Shadaroba, Shadaroba,’/ Means ‘The future is much better/ Than the past.’”

I closed my eyes, I heard Delmus’ voice, once again telling the story of Cherokee—

“A long time ago, in the late ’20s, Stanton Winslow and his wife lived down Linda Verde by the big oak with the rope swing, where the Ransoms’ house is now. They got by on old-age pensions, $30 a month, and only had the shack, a Model T truck and a chestnut mare called Cherokee.

“Stanton could hardly walk, he was all broken down from riding too many horses. He’d worked on ranches, driven cattle from Texas to Montana, signed up at 39 for the cavalry and fought in the Spanish American War, before he joined Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. He fired blanks at Sioux warriors from the Little Big Horn, at Sitting Bull.

“His wife, her name was Ella, would give me raisin cookies and lemonade when I went over to play on the swing. Stanton told me stories about Indians and grizzly bears, about Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, how Teddy called it ‘a splendid little war’ and stayed for a week and fought for a day, rode up San Juan Hill and sailed home.

“‘The charge itself was great fun,’ Teddy said. ‘Oh, but we had a bully fight.’

“Roosevelt wanted the Medal of Honor and was mad when the Congress said no. At the Cuban docks the boat left half the Rough Riders behind with their horses. The 10th Negro Cavalry—Endicott Lowell was with them—got nothing at all—just their captain, ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, won the Silver Star.

“Stanton said he didn’t know any Indians who took scalps, but white soldiers did, for souvenirs. Up in Idaho in a freak fall blizzard he saw a Blackfoot brave walk up to a grizzly, shoot it point blank with a rifle, then skin it out and climb inside so he looked like a sleeping bear.

“‘Del,’ he’d say after a while, ‘you better start home. It’s near time to help your dad milk the cows. Now tell Ella goodbye.’

“And I’d step over and thank Ella for the cookies and lemonade and she’d give me a hug.

“One summer night Stanton heard hooves kicking at the fence, then snorting and a whinny like a rearing horse. He got out of bed and from the porch he saw something pale as a ghost.

“It was a big white horse, running ’round and ’round outside the corral.

“Stanton pulled on his boots and went out and stood by the fence, watching the stallion race around him. He’d never seen such a horse, so clean and tall with an Arabian’s long chiseled head.

“The horse stopped, stood ten feet tall on its hind legs, waving its hooves over the top rail at the mare. Stanton reached over and opened the gate and the white horse went in with Cherokee. They ran in circles, until the mare stopped short and the white horse came up and stood beside her, both of them looking at Stanton.

“In the morning Stanton and Ella were having coffee when a sheriff’s car drove in. Wiggins, he was sheriff, and his deputy came to the door. A man in a black top hat and a red long-tailed coat and shiny black boots ran to the corral.

“Wiggins was taking Stanton in, for rustling. The white horse belonged to a circus that was passing through, one of those trick horses that carried acrobats and monkeys on its back. Wiggins said Stanton had stolen it, at night.

“‘I didn’t take that horse,’ Stanton said.

“‘There he is,’ Wiggins said, ‘unless I’m seeing things.’

“The white horse stood beside Cherokee. The deputy held out the cuffs.

“But then the ringmaster hurried over with his whip, he lifted off his top hat.

“‘Sir, you saved Dancer,’ he said. ‘You have my lasting gratitude. Last night he acted up and this morning he was gone. Dancer must have scented the mare.’

“The ringmaster thanked Stanton for taking the horse off the road, for making sure Dancer didn’t get hit by a car.

“‘Dancer,’ Stanton said, he leaned one hand on the porch post, looking at the white horse. ‘That’s a good name for him.’

“The ringmaster gave Stanton 10 dollars and three tickets. That week Stanton and Ella took me to see Dancer, to a bare field near Dinuba where a big top was pitched and a hundred cars were parked in a straw-covered lot.

“It was a real circus—there was an elephant, an animal tamer with a gun and a lion and tiger in a cage, monkeys dressed in red suits, a high-wire act and two girls in tights holding hands and standing on the horses’ rumps—but Dancer was the star of the show.

“He did everything the ringmaster asked him to do—jumped through hoops on fire, wore a blindfold and climbed up and down stairs, with his teeth he pulled a rope that fired a cannon and white doves flew out the barrel.

“Then he left the ring and ran twice around the track, along the first row of seats while the ringmaster talked through the loudspeaker.

“‘Now Dancer, you have met our guests firsthand. I’m happy to announce that we have good news for two members of our audience. Their tickets have been drawn from the barrel and each lucky winner will receive a handsome prize!’

“‘Dancer, would you please inform Mr. McReedy—I believe he’s a gentleman in a green hat and brown vest—and then lovely Mrs. James, a young woman with a red-haired babe in arms?’

“The white horse raced up to a man with a green ten-gallon cowboy hat and pawed his hoof in the straw, then swiveled and ran until he found the woman with the baby and whinnied, rocking his head.

“‘Thank you, Dancer. Now we know where our winners are and their gifts can be awarded. In the meantime, I have one other request. May we dim the lights?’

“The oohs and ahs and clapping and whistling stopped, the tent got quiet as Dancer stood at attention, facing the ringmaster as he heard the instructions.

“‘There are brave men here tonight, distinguished veterans of the dire conflict between the states, and of two foreign wars. Now I ask you, Dancer, what brave patriot among us left a precious limb across the sea, in the Republic of France, at Belleau Wood, as if to say, “Lafayette, the debt is paid!”?’

“Dancer took off like an arrow, his white main swept back, then in the middle of his gallop he skidded to a stop, wheeled sharp and trotted slowly back around the circle, looking at the people in the stands, at one face and then another. After a while he hesitated, he halted and backed up. He stood still, staring at a young guy about 30 wearing jeans and a suit coat, then lowered his head.

“‘Sir, can you tell us, has Dancer found our hero, the deserving recipient of the Croix de Guerre?’

“The man frowned, confused, looking left and right. The crowd groaned but Dancer didn’t budge, he kept his ground, his head still dipped, and then the man stood up and took off his coat and lifted an arm gone above the elbow.

“The band started playing ‘Over There.’ The crowd went wild so you had to cover your ears, and Dancer reared and left the track, ran around the ring and behind a tent with a blue curtain over the door.

“The curtain opened and the ringmaster stepped out all in sparkling white, he’d just ducked inside to change clothes. First he stared one way, and then the other, he whispered, ‘Is he listening? Can we speak?’

“He waited, with a hand to his ear, and the crowd whispered, ‘Yes.’

“‘Good. Now may I ask the puzzling question on everyone’s mind?’

“There was a hubbub and ringmaster raised his voice, he was talking confidentially to the audience, maybe together they could solve the mystery.

“‘Is he only a horse?’

“A wave of voices answered and he raised a hand.

“‘If only a horse, what horse?’

“Now there was a slow drum roll as the lights went down.

“‘Alexander the Great had a stallion—his name was Bucephalus. The loyal animal was buried in a tomb, in the city Alexander named after him. Bucephalus wept as he died.

“‘Remember Bull Run and Gettysburg?’

“The band played a chorus from ‘Dixie,’ very low.

“‘Robert E. Lee rode a horse, Traveler was his name, for 30 years they journeyed together, in peace and war and peace again.’

“The music stopped and the ringmaster lifted a white glove into the spotlight, as if to block the blinding light that caught him by surprise.

“‘Christ Our Lord Himself told the disciples that when they entered Jerusalem—Jerusalem!—on Palm Sunday they should look for a house with a white horse tethered in front.

“‘Who was this horse? Was he a horse? And if not a horse, if a man—now wait—’

“The ringmaster closed his eyes and shook his head, talking faster:

“‘We-know-the-heathens-in-India-believe-the-soul-of-a-man-at-the-death of-the-body-may-enter-a-living-animal—

“‘But I ask you, now you be the judge, is he animal, if his spirit is human?’

“Again the drum roll started up, louder and faster.

“‘Ladies and gentlemen, you each must decide, answer for yourselves the enigma of the century!

“‘Who is DANCER?’

“The ringmaster took off his white top hat as Dancer stepped from the blue curtain into the spotlight, bowing his head, putting out a shiny hoof to the sound of trumpets. The ringmaster set a heart-shaped wreath of roses over Dancer’s ears, then raised his hand and Dancer reared, standing high on two legs, and they trotted around the straw track, Dancer prancing with his hooves and arching his neck like a Tennessee Walker and the ringmaster waving his hat, and they ran out the door of the big top and everyone kept clapping and shouting to one another about what secret way the horse had done his tricks.

“‘Who’s Dancer?’ I asked Stanton on the way home. ‘Is he just a horse?’

“‘No,’ Stanton said. ‘He’s the spirit of an Indian.’

“And later, the next June, Cherokee foaled, a pinto, a piebald colt Stanton named Pie. It was smart, like its father, white with brown spots.

“Every day I went over to help Stanton train Pie while Ella watched from her chair on the porch. Stanton taught the colt to answer voice commands, a certain whistle. It could dance on its hind feet and shake hands with its hoof.

“Endicott Lowell saw it. He couldn’t believe it. He held the horse’s face in his hands, looking into its eyes.

“‘Now this is a horse, the one I’ve been waiting for. Don’t you think, Walt?’

“Endicott gave Stanton a little engraved bridle, one he’d brought back from Turkey, it was made special for a colt. Each time Endicott came to pick up the old horses for the rendering plant, he’d go over to look at Pie, to see what new things Stanton had taught him.

“But one morning Stanton Winslow came stumbling into the barnyard. He was crying. Endicott was there.

“‘What’s wrong, Stanton,’ Walt asked him. ‘Is it Ella?’

“Stanton couldn’t answer, he just rocked his head.

“Walt got Stanton in the Dodge and we drove up the street.

“In the corral Cherokee lay on the ground, dead, stiff. Pie was sick, he blinked his eyes and wobbled, trying to stand.

“My dad poured milk down his throat, then made him swallow grease. Endicott mixed something out of wine and baking soda and some brown powder he carried in a leather bag. He put his ear to the colt’s heart, then gave him mouth to mouth.

“But Pie died. We dug all day, my father and Endicott and I, a deep hole under that oak, the one with the old rope swing hanging from it. The two horses are buried under that tree.

“Walt found poisoned grain on the top board of the fence. There was a neighbor next door, a guy named Grandy, who had ground squirrels. He’d set out poison and wanted Stanton to put some out too, because the squirrels were running back and forth. But Stanton wouldn’t do it, he didn’t want it near the horses.

“Walt told Grandy he should kill him, he would kill him, if anything else ever happened. None of the neighbors would talk to Grandy after that. A few months later Grandy sold out and moved away and then Ella died of a stroke.

“Ella was Stanton’s second wife. His first wife was Indian, a Paiute from Nevada, from near Walker Lake. Soldiers had killed her, Stanton found her burned-out camp, my father said.

“Walt and I would go over to visit Stanton each Sunday, to take him chicken my mother made. My dad tried to give him a horse but Stanton said he didn’t want it, he didn’t want any more horses.

“One Sunday I went across the street to play with Jimmy and Walt took Stanton the food and knocked on his door. There wasn’t any answer and when Walt stepped into the cabin he found Stanton dead in his bed, a half-empty bottle of whiskey on his chest.

“And after that other bad things started to happen, Raymond got worse and died from the gas, Margaret lost the farm to the bank and Jimmy moved away, I never saw him again and later he got killed in the war.

“Sometimes I’d walk over and ride on the swing under the oak. One time I came home and my parents were sitting in the kitchen. Something had happened, I don’t know what it was, maybe my dad had got back from the bank.

“My mother was upset, she said, ‘Delmus, I don’t want you swinging anymore. You hear me? I’ve told you before.’

“‘How come?’ I said. ‘I’m not bothering anybody.’

“I liked swinging from the rope, knowing the horses were there. When I swung fast through the air it was like I was riding Cherokee and Pie was running beside us, the wind was blowing their manes and tails and they were alive again, racing fast across the Valley. It was a good place.

“‘I don’t care,’ she said. ‘You just don’t.’

“‘Why not?’ I said. I looked over at my Dad. He was staring out the kitchen window.

“‘Because,” said my mother. ‘Because—’

“She turned to my dad.

“‘Walt, you tell him!’

“My dad shook his head.

“‘Under—,’ my mother said, she was angry, waving her finger at me, trying to get the words out.

“‘Under, under that—’

“‘Under that oak,” said my father, now he looked me in the eye, ‘two hearts are buried. That’s what your mother means.’”

“Shadaroba.”

I lifted my head from the door and with the plate of eggs moved down the hall to my mother’s room.

I raised my free hand and knocked, waiting for the string to pull the lock free and open the hot room where long-lost Dolly Mable had taught Kate about love, after she’d introduced her to Eddie Dodge who drove the old blue Cadillac into the barnyard in May.

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Animal.

Or spirit?

“‘Delmus, don’t swing there anymore.’”

“‘Why?’”

“‘Under that oak two hearts are buried.’”

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