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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Hard Ground, Hard Work, Horses and Big Hats

“Hng-oof!” Body relaxed, a half-smile on his face, he hit the ground on his back, driving the air from his lungs and the Stetson back into the air. He tried to suck a breath back into nearly collapsed lungs without success. He pursed his lips and sipped at the air while a high-pitched laugh echoed in his ears. Funny -- there hadn’t been any girls ar… his eyes fetched up at the coal-black horse, head thrown back, trotting in a circle and whinnying -- at him.

Concentrating on sipping air (getting thrown by a horse ridden in by another hand was embarrassing enough -- sucking air and heaving like a drunk wasn’t going to improve matters) Gordon rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself to his knees.

“Here y’go, cowboy!” The Stetson was dropped on his head with a chuckle by one of the ranch hands who’d been standing around or prepping for the day as he mounted the black.
Gordon pulled his left leg under himself and sipped another slow breath. Standing was harder than he expected, but he got there, resettling the Stetson as he rose to cover the difficulty. He looked at the black, then at the men gathered around him. “Billy?” He indicated one of the young men. “Why’d he do that?” He paused for a half-breath. “You put sumthin’ under the saddle?”

“Nah… he just tries to dump every rider who climbs on his back. Doesn’t try very hard though. All you have to do is stand up in the stirrups.” There was a round of laughter.
Gordon stared off across the meager grass and clots of spiny vegetation. Farther than he could see lay mountains to the west, he knew… and to the east two days ride lay lowlands and salt marshes. Two days through the marshes brought the eastern ocean into view. 

“Here be monsters,” he thought, turning his eyes again to the black.

Saying no more, he strode toward the horse, hiding the unsteadiness that wanted to creep into his gait. Thirty men had tried for this job, and some had been friends with some of the men he was now working with, and these men weren’t happy about his being here instead. Still, it galled him to have been thrown just because he was too distracted to pay attention to a strange horse as he mounted it. He should’ve been much more aware. After all, Billy had brought him the horse, saddled and bridled with his own tack, before anybody else had even begun saddling up.

The black stood rock-still as he approached and gathered the reins. Taking the right rein in his left hand, he reached under the horse’s neck and flipped the thin leather strap up and over it, catching it in his right hand and then swapping both lines into his left. Keeping the reins in his left hand, he stepped from the horse’s head toward and past its shoulder, grasped the saddle-horn with his left hand, flexed his knees and jumped. As he jumped, he began a turn toward the horse’s body and slid the toe of his left boot into the stirrup, shoving it down and slinging his right leg over the pommel simultaneously.

When his weight evened on the stirrups he took the trailing ends of the reins in his right hand and, leaning forward toward the black’s head he slashed at its rear, dropping fully into the saddle and digging his heels into the animal’s ribs as he did so. “Run, you sunuvvabitch… run until I tell you to stop,” he muttered into the horse’s mane, as the horse leapt forward. Before the animal could gather itself he dug his heels, and the blunted stirrups thereon, in again, neck-reining the horse hard right to the dirt track that ran north to the ranch house and buildings, another two-day ride away. They thundered down the road for a half-mile before Gordon reined the black left and then right in almost a full circle, swinging south as they reached the road. The watching men saw horse and rider framed by a backlit cloud of dust, pounding toward them at a racing pace.

Gordon sat back and hauled on the reins as they came up to the men, stopping the black in less than ten feet. He swung down and stepped off as the horse stopped. Approaching Billy he glowered at him without speaking for several seconds, then, “Setting me up to get thrown almost made that horse believe he could do it again… to anybody. I don’t like to run a horse like that, but you left me no options. Don’t ever pull a stunt like that again. You may have noticed… I’m a poor sport when it comes to practical jokes.” 

He went back and began to rub down the horse. Someone stripped the saddle and dropped a fresh blanket over it. When he was done, he resaddled the black and looked around. There were fifteen men in the work party, plus the cook and cook’s helper and the hay-wagon driver. The cook and helper rode a chuck-wagon. All fourteen other cowboys were standing or leaning against something, and every one of them had a horse fully saddled and ready to ride.

“You ready, Gordon?” The foreman’s voice held no tone or emotion. “We’re ready if you are.”

Gordon stepped into the stirrup and swung into the saddle. “Yup, let’s go find ‘em.” The group set out at a trot.

As they neared the first clot of spiny shrubs the locals called False Mesquite, limbs began to writhe and lengthen. Each limb was actually a vine, doubled and redoubled to resemble a limb or branch of a small tree. They were well covered in barbed spines ranging in length from half an inch to two inches, and needle sharp. But sensors in the roots told the plant the prey was too large and too many to attack without severe loss, so the vines moved slowly, not fully extended and coursing through the rough vegetation that covered the high desert. Still, they moved constantly while the horses and chuck-wagon filed past, seeking the smaller animals such a parade might startle into flight toward them.

In the distance an oddly elongated animal flowed with an unusual gait parallel to their own path. “’Cat’ on the hunt,” said one of the men, pointing.

“Well, we’re not on the hunt for it.” The foreman’s voice left no room for argument. “You guys let it be. It’s not looking for you and it’s not looking for cattle.” Nobody else spoke.
An hour’s slow ride in the heat later, they came upon the first small group of cattle. There were about two-dozen cows and steers, with three unbranded calves. The six-legged vegetarians were genetically modified to increase their size and reduce their tendency to want to hammer humans into the sides of large structures. They retained their ability to thrive on the woody grasses and thorny bushes of their home planet, but were converted by their genetic mods to be edible meat for humans and other earth creatures. The hexapedal “Cats” of the exoplanet on which Terra had launched its first non-solar colony could still eat them, but were incapable of attacking the modified animals, now nearly three times the size of their ancestors.

"We're not in Kansas any more, Toto," he muttered to the black. "I wonder if there is a Kansas any more." He pondered the sixty thousand years the original colony had slept on their flight to a planet from which they could never again even see the star of the planet of their birth, as he swung in to help capture the first of the calves for branding.

Copyright R C Larlham 2010, All rights to author

Desert's End

Head down and heaving with every breath, the nearly fleshless paint horse he led still showed the beauty that had been. Taller by a hand or more than the ponies most western cowhands rode, his spine ridged up, more from lack of water than of food, although there’d been no food for nearly a week.

The man himself, blistered, clothes ragged and boots worn through, staggered just a little, like a man who’d had one whiskey too many. He too walked head down, watching for the tiny stone or ridge that would take his legs and send him to the ground.

The big horse whickered, and the man looked up. He doffed his hat, and rubbed his eyes gently with forefinger and thumb of the other hand. “I see it.” He patted the cheek of the head now resting on his shoulder. “And I’m thinkin’ you smell water.” He looked at the few dusty buildings, still at least a mile away that had appeared abruptly as they rounded the vertical end of an eroded hill.

Hitching the holster up (more a habit than any need), he dropped the old wide-brimmed hat back on his head and walked forward. He watched the town as they walked toward it, the ragged man and sun-beaten horse. The desert behind him had taken the others in a three-cornered firing squad, when the promised spring had turned out to be dry, seven days earlier. Their horses hadn’t lasted much longer. He’d taken their water, but it had run out four days later. He and the horse had drunk only the dew on the cold side of rock spires for the past three days.

They staggered on, the thought of water turning thirst to agony. At the beginning of the street into the town, an old jack-handle pump stood, with bucket, ladle and trough. Holding back the horse with a warning hand and quiet word, he pumped into the bucket, poured most of it into the short trough, and ladled the rest out for himself.

“Smart,” the voice was behind him. He straightened, casually dropping the ladle into the bucket, “drew enough t’ cut th’ dust, but not enough to founder th’ horse.” Gravel crunched.

The ragged man turned toward it… slowly. “Who do I pay for th’ water?” The horse whickered again.

“Water’s free.” The man was tall, skinny as a rail, bald and bareheaded. His scalp shone red-brown in the rising sun. “Two cents apiece rental for th’ bucket, ladle and trough.” He chuckled easily at his own wit. “Nickel for th’ three… volume discount.” He grinned, wide… showing teeth and gaps. The single action revolver on his left hip rode low in a well-worn holster. The hand next to it twitched.

“OK.” The ragged man reached into his left pocket and retrieved a coin; flipped it, flashing in the sun, toward the man’s left shoulder.

The bald man’s left had struck upward like a snake, snaring the coin. The ragged man’s .45 appeared in his hand. The bald man’s left eyebrow rose. “Last time I seen you, I was ridin’ hard and lookin’ back, and you fell off’n y’r horse.” He showed the grin again.

“Might’ve been th’ bullet you put in my ribs made thet happ’n.” The ragged man smiled back. “Have t’ admit… never thought ya c’d hit me at that distance shootin’ backwards off a horse.”

“Me e’ther.” The bald man was still smiling. “Luckiest shot I ev’r made.”

“Got any law here?”

“Naw. I kilt him two weeks ago. He recognized me… called my name.”

“Without the’ mop of flamin’ hair and th’ beard? Hard to believe.”

“Knew my voice ‘n walk, he said… saw me comin’ outa a bank in San Antonio.”

“How many dead in th’ bank?”

“Three, but he didn’t know none of ‘em.”

The ragged man nodded. “Me neither, but we’re both lawmen.”

“Not you. Y’r just a bounty hunter.”

“Where’s ever-body else?” The ragged man changed the subject.

“Just me an’ a saloon girl. Ever-body else rode out three days ago.”

“Got any horses left in th’ liv’ry?”

“Three or four, but if you think you’re takin’ me somewhere t’ hang, y’ need t’do some rethinkin’. I ain’t gonna hang f’r nobody.”

The ragged man ignored him. “Wagons or buggys?”

“Two… a farm wagon and the doctor’s buggy. He didn’t need it n’more.” The grin flashed again.

“Poster sez, 'Dead or alive.’” The pre-cocked .45 spat flame and a small, bluntly rounded piece of lead into the center of the chest of the bald man.

The ragged man looked down at his brother’s body.  "The Old Man says, “Hello.”"

R C Larlham - March 20, 2010 

Copyright R C Larlham, 2010, all rights to author.