Now in his old age, he wished he’d stayed. If he had, maybe he would be healthy, married, have some children to look after him and farm the land. But it was too late for ‘what-ifs’. Too late for anything but the chance of dying here--the place where he’d been happiest. There would be no marker to bear his name, nothing here to remember him by. His was a life that hadn’t been as fruitful as it should have. There was no one to blame but himself. He wondered if coming home now could make everything right. He’d meant to come back sooner, but there was always another excuse that kept him from away from home. A single tear rolled down his leathery face when he thought about the wasted time.
The horse snorted as if sensing the man’s sad thoughts. Coming back to himself, the cowboy urged the horse into the valley. It was difficult for him not to admire the land, so ripe with tall grass and splashes of color from blossoming wild flowers against the steel gray of the sky.
The horse and rider didn’t stop until they reached the very bottom of the dale. The old cowboy dismounted and began to unload his meager possessions. First, he laid his rifle down with care. It wouldn’t matter now if the gunpowder got wet, but the rifle had seen him through a lot of trouble. The stock was scarred from battles and travels throughout the west. It had saved his life on more than one occasion.
He deposited his bedroll on the ground and a battered canteen followed. The last to go were the saddle and horse blanket. He could not remember the saddle ever weighing as much as it seemed to now. His gear had made his livelihood, but the weakness in his chest had overtaken his body. The worn rig toppled to the ground. He righted the saddle, because he would not feel right leaving it in a heap.
As the man moved to take the bridle off of the horse, the horse shook itself out. The action brought a smile to the tough old face, easing the pain of knowing he wasn‘t the same man who had left this land.
The cowboy did not intend to picket the gelding, because he did not plan to ride anymore. Instead, he turned it loose, but the horse did not go far. It stayed close by maybe not fully understanding it was free. The cowboy didn’t shoo the horse away. He let his faithful friend remain by his side. It was good to have company. He fixed his evening meal, some dried beef, along with a can of peaches he had been saving, and a pot of coffee.