My beloved horse, Biscuit, is dead. Killed by my own hand after being ambushed by the O’Driscolls and caught with no horse medicine. Biscuit and I had bonded. We’d spent weeks together and we were as close as man and horse can be. He calmed when I reassured him, snickered at me when I gave him snacks, and came when I called, following me like a loyal pup. Biscuit’s death is made slightly easier to stomach because I was there to end his very brief suffering. I was able to put him down in the most humane way possible for an outlaw in 1899.
I return to my camp in Red Dead Redemption 2 to grieve my horse and plan my revenge on the O’Driscolls. I will become a hunter of the men who ambushed me and took the life of the one being I trusted without reservation.
Now I ride around on a morgan horse, a small and not-great girl who doesn’t trust me and doesn’t come when I call. She’s all I could afford from the stables and I’ve named her Morgan because this one, I won’t grow attached to. This is what I’ve told myself about every horse of my past, and every time, I’ve been wrong.
I grew up in a house surrounded by a hayfield owned by a woman who could only be described as a spinster. All my life she’d been alone and single-handedly responsible for running and tending to what was once a sprawling family dairy farm. She’d had male suitors but chose to remain single. Perhaps it was because she enjoyed her independence, or, perhaps, it was because she was unlikely to let a man take over the head of the household. She simply wouldn’t have that.
Every day, I’d walk to the corner and give her horses one apple each, or, on weekends if my mother was feeling generous in her grocery shopping, some carrots. My neighbor took notice of my daily visits with her horses and she taught me how to care for them, long before I ever had a horse of my own. I learned how to brush them with a curry comb, clean their hooves, pull their manes, and calm them when they were frightened. Being near them calmed me too. There’s a spot on a horse, just between their shoulder and neck, that feels like velvet and when you nestle your face in that spot, you inhale pure horse-ness. A scent better than freshly baked cookies for anyone bitten by the horse bug.
It was natural that when I turned sixteen, I got my first horse instead of a car. A fifteen-year-old albino quarter horse that would spend the next four years of his life teaching me everything I needed to know for a life spent with horses.
Back in the game with Morgan, my morgan, our relationship is coming along. She’s no Biscuit, but she’ll do. At camp, with Morgan hitched and resting, I tend to my chores, carrying sacks of grain to the camp cook, chopping wood for the fire, and hefting bales of hay to each of the horses’ feeding spots. Morgan and I ride into Valentine to do some shopping. I need more oatcakes for her and some chocolate for myself, as I’ve become underweight. I greet everyone I pass by in town from atop my steed, and they return the kindness. Some know who I am, like the man who has told his friend about me after I saved his life by sucking snake venom from his leg. And those who don’t greet me as though I’m an acquaintance anyway.
I spent the first years of adulthood managing a horse farm. A job which I felt born to do. I had seventy horses in my care and I knew each and every one of them inside and out. I knew their preferred treats, where they did and didn’t want to be touched, and which among them insisted on making me earn their respect (those were always my favorite). I knew them better than their owners did and I loved all seventy of them as though each one was my own.
My first loss came two years into my time at the farm. George, a massive warmblood, was easily one of my favorites. He was such a challenge to work near and handle. He loved biting both people and horses as they walked past his stall, unsuspecting, and he used his size to escape while being led to his paddock. My 140 pound, 5’3 body was no match for him at 1800 pounds, standing over six feet tall at the shoulder. It took me a year to finally figure out how to handle him without having the chase him as he ran free, dragging his lead line. My relationship with George took daily work and while I knew that he would always try to best me and he knew I would always win, it was endlessly rewarding when I became the only person on the farm he didn’t try to bite.
Then one day I came to work for their 4 a.m. feeding to find George was gone. I knew he’d died and tried not to speculate as to exactly how while I waited three hours for the farm owner to come outside and begin his day’s work. There were so many tragic and sudden ways a big horse like that could die and I couldn’t bear any of them but did my best to steel myself for whatever Tom, the farm owner, would tell me. Colic, broken leg, broken neck from his insistence on running dragging his lead line. What Tom told me though, was the one thing I’d not prepared for. His owner, who clearly didn’t love horses the way I did, had paid the vet to simply kill George because he no longer met her needs. His size led to him having joint problems at a fairly young age and she couldn’t compete with him as she once had, so it was time for him to be replaced. He was still perfectly healthy and able to be ridden, but was no longer good enough for her. Another horse owner asked George’s owner what had happened to him and what she said made me sick. Still does over ten years later. “When a horse reaches the end of his useful life, you put him down,” she said, as though she’d sold her rickety old car. It was unfathomable for me that she didn’t realize what a wonderful animal George was and I pitied her for obviously never having developed the relationship with her own horse that I had. I hated her for feeling that way about another living, breathing being who had strong emotional connections to both horses and people. But what I really hated her for was not giving me the chance to say goodbye to him. I spent the rest of my time working at the farm wondering, full of spite, if her husband would put her down when she retired and reached the end of her useful life. She killed my friend and I could not see her as anything but a monster any longer.
In the game, I got to say goodbye to Biscuit and in doing so, in the strangest and most unexpected way, I felt closure for all the horses I’d once loved at the farm, whom I’d never had the chance to say goodbye to. Biscuit, and the chores done and pleasantries exchanged in town during my time as Arthur Morgan, gave me the closure I’d been needing after leaving my farm life when it became unsustainable.
After too many losses like that of George and an advancing debilitating autoimmune disease, I left my small town behind and moved to Chicago, a place that felt like it would offer opportunities I’d never have if I remained in Michigan. My body couldn’t serve me in a way that allowed me to continue with manual labor and growing up where I did, if you weren’t a football player, cheerleader, or smart enough to get into a good college, you ended up stuck there. It also didn’t help that being one of the only gay people (one of the only out gay people anyway) I’d always been the freak, the suspect. In Chicago, I fit. I can walk around with my hair cut into a rainbow-dyed mohawk and the only reactions I ever receive are compliments and awe. Back home, my mere existence causes disgust as people try to figure out just what gender I am and wonder why I can’t just be normal, not ruffle feathers, just fit in. I make them uncomfortable and there, they feel that’s not a right I should have extended to me.
My hometown voted overwhelmingly for Trump who, between his Muslim bans (I’d converted to Islam after moving), his appointing of horribly racist and homophobic people to government offices, and his obliterating of the healthcare marketplace (the thing which I relied on to stay alive), made it clear he wanted people like me dead. I’d always felt like an outsider there, but I’d never, until election day, understood so deeply how much the people I grew up with despised me. I never would have guessed they were, at best, indifferent about my safety and my life.
I love Chicago for being the first place that really felt like home and I can’t imagine ever returning to the general air of being unwanted and unsafe simply because I exist that came with living in my little farm town. I don’t want to go home because it becomes less of a home to me each day. More than that, as violence by the “Christian” white right against marginalized people continues to grow, I know that I can’t go home. I’m no longer welcome there. I understand this after hearing my good friend who has been out as a lesbian since the 70’s and lives in the same town talk about how she and her wife only feel safe anymore if they present themselves as friends, roommates, to their neighbors who still, two years after the election, proudly display their Trump yard signs. I know that as a trans-masculine, non-binary person, going home now would jeopardize my safety and I am simply not interested in taking that risk, no matter how much I miss horses.
I miss my hometown though, even if what I remember of it is much more fantasy than reality now. I miss being able to go to the feed store and having the guy immediately recognize me and ask after the well-being of my horses. I miss the early mornings of horse shows on the farm, the long weekends where it became a town itself, filled with hundreds of fellow horse people, and the warm exchange of “Mornin’” between me and the others responsible for the lives of horses, long before the sun began to rise. I miss driving through town and on a regular basis, waving at someone I know as we’re stopped beside each other at a traffic light.
I love Red Dead Redemption 2 not for its stunning vistas or cutting edge graphics and NPC immersion, but for giving me back a little of the home I miss. I turn on the game not to get rich by robbing stagecoaches and unsuspecting people but to care for my horses and warmly greet those around me. Arthur Morgan, when prompted to, pats all of his horses right in that sweet spot. That magical horsey-smelling velvety spot and when he does, if only just briefly, I can close my eyes and inhale the sweet odor and feel the velvet fur of a well-groomed and well-loved horse.