Gus

Gus

Back in 1955, a circus came to town.

Nothing unusual about that—except that the town was Fairbanks, Alaska. Alaska was not even a state yet, and the circus thought they would make expenses by playing to the towns along the Alaska Highway. Since the Alaska Highway was still basically a dirt road when I first drove it fifteen years later, and the towns were pretty small and far apart, they arrived in Fairbanks practically broke.

And then it rained.

Eventually they had to sell the animals to give the performers the money to get back to the States. Among those sold was a liberty act of six palomino horses.

I don’t know what happened to all the horses—the initial sale was well before I came to Alaska, and I looked up the details in the local paper. I’ve heard some died in the frigid winter of 1961-62, with ten consecutive days of daily maximum temperatures well below – 40° F. But I did come to know two: Gus and Shorty. Gus, in fact, became the first horse I ever owned.

I met Gus in the mid-60’s, as a rental horse at a riding stable. I saw him bluff a 6-foot G.I. into thinking he was more horse than the guy was ready to handle, but he never gave me any real trouble. Maybe he appreciated the fact that I was (relatively) lightweight and knew a little of how to ride. In fact I was helping out at the stable by that point, though I was also working on my Master’s thesis.

I did not, however, go along on the fall guided hunting trips—and Gus came back from one of those with a horrendous saddle sore in the middle of his back. It appeared to heal over the winter, but when the weather moderated, it was apparent he had a permanent lump on his back. He could still be ridden bareback, or with a special pad under his saddle cut out to assure no pressure on the scar, but as a livery horse, he was through. I was just finishing my M.S. and starting my Ph.D., and figured the stipend I was getting could be stretched to cover Gus’s board, so I became the owner of one palomino ex-circus horse in the spring of 1967.

I don’t know how old Gus was at the time. As a trained circus horse he was probably between six and twelve years old in 1955, which would have made him between eighteen and twenty-four when he became mine—but at that time, I did not know his history or how long he’d been in Fairbanks. I rode him sidesaddle in the Golden Days parade that year, and discovered that he’d been the parade marshal’s  horse at one time—certainly he never twitched an ear at the general excitement of the parade. Later I hitched him to a cart and drove him—and that, too, he simply rolled his eyes and accepted.

In fact he was pretty unflappable, for a horse. He was also exceptionally intelligent, and quite willing to use that intelligence to get out of any work he could. He could only be caught with food, for instance. (He was always greedy, possibly a holdover from that cold winter.) A bit of grass was no good—it took a bucket of feed. He’d leaned from one previous owner that if he charged a person trying to catch him, the person would give up. He tried that on me once—and got his face slapped with a bridle. He never tried it on me again, but he’d do it if someone he thought he could bluff tried to catch him. While most of the horses at the boarding stable where I kept him could be led with a bit of binder twine around their necks, Gus needed a halter—he knew if a person was really in control or not. And though he never charged me after that once, he was a genius at positioning himself so that the only way to get to him was to go right behind another horse—preferably one that kicked.

With time I added a younger horse to my string, and Gus was semi-retired. His neck began to show wrinkles when he turned his head, and one day I found him working at a mouthful of grass and finally letting it fall from his mouth. Tooth floating time? The vet tried, but Gus had simply run out of tooth length. Not that it affected him all that much—the stable relied on a complete pelleted feed, and he’d take a mouthful, dunk it in his water bucket, mouth it until it became mushy, and swallow it. His water buckets were invariably a mess, but Gus stayed in good condition.

He died in 1982, almost certainly in his 30’s and possibly pushing 40. He taught me a lot about horses, some of which I have used in my novels. And he was a part of Fairbanks history, coming into the state before statehood, seeing the changes that took place during the pipeline years, and closing his eyes on an Alaska people born when he was would never have recognized.

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