The Last Beer

© Bruce Northridge

published in ANVIL Magazine, August 1998

The last of anything can be a cherished image in the mind -- especially if it has a role as a reward for endurance, or as the first self-indulgence after an eternity of self-denial. Holding the last Almond Joy candy bar in the mind's eye... keeping it wrap wrapped and tucked in a freezer compartment of the mind, referring to the rendezvous and the end of the task... holding that candy bar in the imagined mouth... relishing the exploding taste of it... feeling the syrup of it melting in delicious enthrallment... that's a piece of heaven.

Chuck had ridden with me only a couple of days when we had the horses on Shale Mountain to do. There were nine of them and the youngest had been voting for quite some time. They were old and reliable and gentle and predictable and were kept on the Shaky Slab Ranch for guests or for the owner's children to ride, or in case somebody wanted to go hunting and shoot something from horseback.

So the horses' shoes rarely wore out. In fact, the only reason for shoes at all was the foreman's mother. She had raised all her children - five - on the snobbery that only the poorest white trash kept barefoot horses. She also held that resetting shoes is what Indians did, and that shoes had to be made with American or English steel. Ever since World War II, she thought that Japan was a sneaky place and that horseshoes from there were probably poisonous and that if her children wore American shoes, their horses should, too.

The only shoes made in America in those days were Diamond Bronco Mud and Snows and you could get them at feed stores in three sizes: too big, way too big, and way too small. You needed a forge to get them to work, but they had a "Made in USA" stamp on them and that was what really mattered.

I was trying to like Chuck; he had funny stories and he seemed to have the desire to learn the craft of horseshoeing. We both had an avid interest in beer and had found common ground in our capacity for the stuff. But if the foreman's mother had taught him the vagaries of farrier science, I had been taught gentility in the process of consuming booze. Some of the obvious tenets were: only with a meal or after the work is done, never do it in public if you can help it; and real men can "hold their liquor." I never questioned the idea that beer could be categorized as booze, and I never went anywhere without two or three in the bottom of an ice chest.

The foreman of the Shaky Slab Ranch always waited for a few shoes to be lost before calling for an appointment. This gave him the opportunity to compare the old days' style of shoeing to the modern, less reliable practices he was forced to put up with. In his mother's time horses were shod twice a year, and he knew this because he was the one who had to take them to the blacksmith all by himself - all 50 head of them - all at once. And he was just a little boy, too. His sisters were certainly no help - those horses being rank-and-plow horses with big feet - and then he had to crank the bellows for the smith and walk all those horses home again in the dark.

I got $126.00 for shoeing his ranch horses. I had to leave a bill. Usually the money came within a couple of weeks, so I viewed the ranch as a bread-and-butter account. Getting paid right after the job was ideal, but having a check appear as if by magic was a plus, too. Somehow it had the feel of unearned income and usually triggered a dinner out and maybe a movie. The hard part was driving away, exhausted, without the warm feel of the check in the wallet. That's where one or two of those frosty beers proved invaluable; they really helped in the games horseshoers must play at times to keep going.

I had to pick Chuck up that morning. He was in bad shape, all hung over and shaking a little. I had given him ten bucks for apprentice wages the day before and it looked as though he and his lady had had a party with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bag or two of potato chips. He was dressed, though, when I banged on the door at first light.

"Bring a lunch," I ordered.

" My God!" he said.

It soon became obvious that Chuck had not received the same instruction on booze that I had. Rule number twelve in the Laws of Life: Never let your weaknesses interfere with your image of self-reliance and competence. He couldn't stand for long periods, and pulling shoes was completely out of the question. I put him in the passenger seat of the van and closed the door.

I finished four horses by lunchtime. The foreman caught them for me and after the second horse, I convinced him to tie the lead rope to the fence. He liked to pace up and down when he talked and he was making me fit the shoes on the fly - to say nothing of chipping up the feet. Once he had tied the horse to the fence, he was dismayed that my forge had an electric blower. He was fond of telling me all about Mr. Neilsen the blacksmith and the big hand-cranked bellows all the kids got to operate just exactly right, or you could really get yelled at. I probably should have brought a blower for him to play with. Letting him crank something would have been far less strain than listening to "how differently Mr. Nielsen did it." And "why was everybody so darned hardheaded anymore, when it was done so much better back when Mr. Nielsen did it?"

I had a beer with lunch. Chuck ate one of my sandwiches and all the cookies, and drank a beer, too. But mixed in the ice and hidden among the Cokes and bottles of fruit juice and Gatorade, I knew there was one last beer left. Old, gentle horses are wonderful, but shoeing them can be like holding up loose sacks of wet sand. Old horses figure they've been packing mankind around for so long that, just for a little while, a man can hold them up for a change nothing malicious, just limp and heavy. The only rest for the shoer is at the anvil and that's when old Nielsen - reincarnated - reinvented anatomy, metallurgy, and often the basic laws of nature.

"Why you cutting parts of that shoe off?"

"It's too big."

"Don't you have a smaller shoe"

"Not made in America."

"Why's that?"

By the end of the sixth horse, the last beer began calling to me. Imagining it, holding it, drinking it down were all bastions created against the desire to just simply drive away. Chuck, rejuvenated from his nap after lunch, was able to pull shoes. The end was in sight. I had a dollar and a half in a jar in the glove compartment, more than enough for a six-pack. I had my ace in the hole: the last beer chilled to the core waiting for the first gulp - that splash of cold, that absolute affirmation that there is a God, that utter bliss in just a swallow - all of that was in sight. And I was able to stay steadfastly away from the driver's side door of the van.

Half way through the last horse, the foreman decided to turn all the horses out. They galloped and whinnied like foals and broke, farting and bucking, through the gate. The old mare I was working on wanted to pull the fence down and go after them. Unsuccessful, she decided to run in place instead. With a foot up she couldn't pace, so she neighed and chuckled and pumped her head up and down. My knees were like water, my back was a broken spring, my hammer barely hit where I aimed it.

Then the foreman decided it was feeding time.

All the horses were back, squealing and snorting, and were playing musical chairs with the charges of hay he was throwing through the barn windows.

I had all the nails driven into the last shoe but I didn't have it clinched. The poor old mare was hysterical: missing the herd was one thing, but missing a meal was a primeval impossibility. She drove the shoe back.

"I always feed at the same time each day," he said.

"Learned it from your mother, did you" I said, with little charity.

Chuck was glad to hold hay as I reset the last shoe. The mare was glad to nuzzle and burrow as I worked and as I dreamed of nectar from heaven. In my mind I could hear the sound of the pop-top, a snap and crackle and muted rip - then a hiss, confirming the living ambrosia within.

I put the tools away, rolled my apron carefully, secured the anvil, banked the fire, wrote the invoice. I managed brief civility with the foreman and predicted to myself the beginning of nirvana after the first turn in the road down from the ranch house. The engine started perfectly and the gears meshed like all the design engineers had planned. The steering wheel made the tires do precisely what was needed to start the turn, and my right hand went unerringly to the cooler lid and plunged willingly into the icy slush.

I stopped to look. Horror clawed at my heart.

"What do you need?" Chuck asked.

I was pushing the bottles aside.

"There was another beer." My hand was numb.

"I was thirsty. I drank it after lunch," Chuck smiled.

Didn't I know that real men don't drink juice?

Rosario's Grocery was at the bottom of the mountain right at the turnoff of Highway 101, ten miles from the turn below the ranch house. I had heard of purgatory, but I'd never realized it was ten miles long.

Chuck is probably still curious why I never said a word after looking into that barren cooler. He might even have wondered why I didn't offer him one of the beers I bought at Rosario's. After awhile, he finally stopped leaving messages at my answering service. I never did hear of him becoming a horseshoer. And, for some reason, I never got sad about that.

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