After work on Friday, I helped Uncle clean stalls. He has three Tennessee Walker’s that he fusses over morning and evening, they love it. He has a Tennessee Walker silhouette on his mailbox, and stickers on the back of his big, gold Dodge Ram. Each of his horses has a big, roomy stall that he built, with high windows that have fans in front to keep the flies away. Threat, the stud, and Reba, their mare, are both chestnuts. PW, his favorite, is jet black and as big as a locomotive. He raised her from a colt, and she will pin her ears back at everyone but him.
Walking to the barn, I see three heads sticking over the stall doors, all eyes on us. Threat bellowed and Reba nickered a hello. Uncle gave them several flakes of hay to keep them busy, I grabbed a pitch fork and we started cleaning. We scooped the dirty shavings into the wheelbarrow, and spread fresh, clean ones in the middle of the stalls. The horses stay busy munching their hay, paying us no mind.
After checking their water and feeding them grain, we settled in the gravel hallway of the barn. I sat on the top of a step-stool and he unfolded a camping chair, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his faded shirt pocket. He smokes like a chimney, but I really don’t mind.
Uncle has a grey goatee that he tugs when he is thinking about something. His arms are tanned and scarred like leather, and his hands are calloused from years of cutting and nailing wood for houses, barns and countless pieces of furniture. He has helped Sadie and I so much in this past year, I don’t know what we would do without him. We aren’t blood related, not one drop, but he is family. And I enjoy wasting away the evenings there, listening to stories from the comfort of the barn.
I love that barn, it’s beautiful. It’s simple, but most good ones are. We listened to the horses munching and stared out at the fields leading to the river, before bucking up into a mountain ridge. Our house faces the east, so I get the best sunrises. But Uncle’s faces the west over the river, and they get to most beautiful sunsets. I know he loves it as fiercely as I love our farm, there is no place we would rather be.
It’s quiet for a while, Uncle talks, but not when it’s unnecessary. He’s a slow talker. I learned that you can’t ever be in a hurry if you’re waiting for him to say something. He’s got that classic easy southern drawl. It’s why he is so good with horses, and probably why they respect him so much. He learned carpentry work from his dad, who was part Cherokee Indian, and was raised near Gatlinburg with his 12 siblings. He trained Walking Horses for a long time, he and his wife Dawn did well in the show circuit. But now, he has his three favorites safe and happy. He’s too in love with the mountains to go travelling again.
At some point in the evening, we both rise and close the big, sliding wooden doors. After a long week, it’s a great way to end the day. And it’s about the only way I ever want to spend a Friday night. There is a peace about relaxing in the barn once all the work is done, the animals are fed and ready for the night. It feels good knowing they each have full bellies, clean water, and fresh shavings to bed down in. I was ready for bed too, and said my goodbyes. They told me to be careful, and I made the short drive back to our farm.
It’s less than a mile, the road leaving Uncles climbs up from the valley, before turning onto the main road, you can look out and see the fields spread away like a patchwork quilt, cut in two by the wide bend of the French Broad River. From there, the road curves and winds down, tunneled by trees. It doesn’t open up again until you get to our farm, our old tobacco barn sits on the hill, and I see our horses grazing in the evening light. They don’t have big stalls to sleep in each night, but I kind of like to think maybe they prefer sleeping under the stars.