By Karen Wills
Accidents happened, varied in their seriousness. In midsummer 1925, Jim rode a seasoned bay leading a strung-out group of pack animals that included a favorite of Nora’s, the big white gelding named Cotton Two. The mild-mannered horse had been named after one of the draft animals that pulled his and Nora’s wagon when they made their long-ago journey to settle on the North Fork.
A young man from Coram sat his mount in the center of the string while a jocular boy from Martin City rode in last place. Jim didn’t dare pigtail the animals. On this steep, narrow trail heading to Camp 4, if one horse stumbled over the edge it would pull the whole line down to their doom.
Cotton Two carried four 50-pound boxes of dynamite. Jim heard the Coram boy’s shout of “Damnation and hell fire!” A horse’s scream drowned out the rest. Jim turned to see Nora’s favorite slip over the side and roll down and down, disappearing among the trees almost at once.
The boys calmed their mounts, then stopped and took off their hats. They waited for Jim to say something as they gazed woefully toward where Cotton Two must have landed. Jim’s one word, “Detachment,” seemed to puzzle them. They shrugged, replaced their battered hats, nodded with troubled expressions, and proceeded.
At Camp 4 Jim spoke briefly to Michael and helped unload supplies before he rode back to Camp 1, headquarters. He ate a thick ham sandwich for an early supper, then picked out the horse they’d named for the original Cotton’s teammate, Wink. As the sun slipped toward the western peaks, he rode Wink Two along a darkening trail.
Jim wanted to be able to tell Nora exactly how Cotton Two died. He wanted it to be true that the animal perished on impact with a broken neck. He dreaded finding it still suffering and in need of shooting.
Jim’s breath came hard. He gasped air that felt cold in the back of his throat as he approached where he calculated Cotton Two’s carcass should be. He planned to bring home the horse’s pack saddle and halter, and hoped he could handle the job alone in the dark. His heart sounded in his ears as ragged as his breath.
A familiar whinny broke the night stillness. Jim got down and tethered Wink Two to a branch. He walked toward the sound, not daring to imagine what he’d find. He stepped into a clearing full of high grass. Cotton Two stood before him in the last light of the day, the sky like a wall of ice lit from the other side. Cotton Two grazed with the solemn mien of a stoic accepting whatever fate intended for him. Except for a torn, bloody ear, and a few long scratches, the gelding appeared able to stand without pain. After running his hands over the horse, Jim felt sure it had sustained bruises, but no broken bones or life-threatening injuries.
“Cotton Two, Nora will be so pleased.” Jim, astonished, paraphrased a line from the poem, Invictus. “Your head is bloody, but unbowed.” Then he stroked the animal he’d given up for dead and rested his forehead against its white muzzle. For a long while neither of them moved.
Jim finally raised his head and breathed in the cold night air. Nora’s horse seemed a miracle that called for some act of gratitude, some bloodless sacrifice. “We want to go home, don’t we, white horse? We don’t do so well away from Nora and Evening Star. We should give these jobs of ours to ambitious youngsters. The two of us have earned our rest.”
Cotton Two nickered in full agreement.