Chapter 6

(Hi everyone! Sarah here, please vote for the protagonist’s name by clicking on the blog title and participating in the poll if you haven’t done so already! Cheers <3)

The younger boy disappeared back in side the barn and several minutes later returned leading a gorgeous horse. She pranced and tossed her head wildly so that several times the boy had to jump out of the way of her thrashing hooves. Prism’s coat was splotched with chestnut and white hair that transitioned through a rosy pink at each border. One of her eyes lay in a blotch of dark hair and was a deep brown. The other was ringed by white hair and was bright blue.

I scribbled my name on the release form with the pen he gave me and then thanked the boy as he gratefully handed me the lead rope and backed away. I reached for the horse’s velvety nose and she snorted and tried to toss her head again.

I held her fast and stared into her milky blue eye as she tried to pivot her back end away from me.

“She’s blind on this side?” I asked.

Both men’s eyebrows rose and I knew that I had guessed correctly.

“How long?”

“About six months now,” said Charlie. “Infection.”

He crossed his arms again and Colt smiled reassuringly behind his back.

“Go ahead into the barn then,” Charlie said. “All the tack is through the door to the right. You can use anything you want that isn’t labeled for another horse. Her saddle is on the top row by the door. Just do whatever you would do if she were yours. There’s an arena separate from the corral right there,” he said motioning to a gate in the near by fence. “I’m gauging your aptitude,” and then more to himself, “and your judgment.”

As I walked her through the barn doors toward the inside cross ties, Prism began to dance and lash out with her back feet. I kept my arm extended and continued forcing her forward. I could ride her, I knew, but doing so with her strung this tight wouldn’t get either of us much beyond a broken neck on my part, and still more agitation and distrust for her.

It was a risk in terms of getting hired if that’s what Charlie had been suggesting, but he’d also said to treat her as I would when I had my own horses. I didn’t even bother looking for her saddle, just grabbed a long crop and a thirty-foot line and retraced my steps out of the barn and into the arena.

Once the new line replaced the shorter lead rope on her halter, I drove her to the end of its length with the crop and set her on a walking path with her good brown eye facing me. The mare broke into a lope almost immediately and I guessed she hadn’t been worked much at all since losing half her sight. She bucked and kicked and I kept her moving until she broke into a flat run of her own accord.

The line went taught and I fought a momentary flash of anxiety when she laid her weight into it and gunned for the opposite end of the wide arena. I heaved against her face and managed to bring her back on the circular path. She tried several times to turn her head to see the outside of the ring, but mostly she kept her good eye fixed on me and tried to stay as far away as possible.

She ran, and I watched as frothy spit built up around her mouth, white and foamy against the darker hair that covered most of her face. I slowed her down and then drove her back up over and over until she understood my cues. Sweat began to slip down over her flanks and gradually her head hung lower as she began to tire and relax.

Finally I brought her back toward me, gave her neck a good rub and tried to push her back out so that her bad eye was oriented inward. Charlie wanted me to ride, but I wouldn’t until she and I understood one another.

Prism did not like having me in her blind spot. I’d back her out by waving the crop in front of her and she’d fight to turn back toward the swinging end, shying as I tapped her shoulder and forced her to go the other direction. She took a couple steps and then would rear with her head tossed, pivoting on her hindquarters. I dashed left and forced her around over and over as the mare pitched a veritable tantrum on the other end of the lunge line. She was only on a ten foot radius now so that I could control her direction with the crop. Twice she shied violently from something on the outside of the circle where she could see. I had narrowly missed her each time, leaping to the left so that she was still circling me clockwise.

The horse was tired, despite how uncomfortable she was. Slowly, so very slowly she began to quiet again. She resisted less. And eventually, she loped in gentle circles as her chest heaved. I swapped hands with the crop and brought her to a halt before walking toward her bad side, taking up the slack in the line as I went. She still flinched slightly when I reached her, but once my hand was on her neck her muscles uncoiled again.

Her flanks were soaked, and I worried about what I planned to do next. I remembered that Charlie had said, if she can ride her.

“Alright little girl,” I told the horse. “Show time.”

I walked back toward the fence and saw Charlie and Colt both sitting on one of the upper rails. I get so wrapped up in horses and I had nearly forgotten they were there.

“Charlie, do you have a small towel or something?” I asked.

Not half a minute later the blond boy returned with a white towel and handed it through the rungs of the fence. I had the original lead rope reattached now and I took the towel and retreated down the fence line a ways. Once Prism was tied loosely to the fence, I began the process of rubbing down her coat with the soft cloth. Her face and neck she didn’t mind, even leaned into the pressure slightly right where her mane joined her neck. Then I made my way over her shoulders, down her front legs, and thoroughly over her damp sides. I sopped up most the the sweat and finished her rump and back leg on the side of her good eye. Then I trailed my hand over her rear and moved to the other side of her face.

I was worried that she would still fight me, still resent any contact that she couldn’t see. But the mare had finally quieted down and she let me work the towel over her blind side without argument. Her head dropped low and her bottom lip hung loose, far from the ear-pinning, eye-rolling fear she had displayed just half an hour ago.

I moved back up to body and rubbed between her ears. The towel I draped over the fence and then loosened the lead rope, fixing it this time to the metal fastener to the side of her nose. There was a plastic mounting block positioned slightly off the fence line, probably what she had shied from before, and I let her sniff and deem it safe before lining her up along side. I tied the other end of the rope to the opposite side of her face and pulled the makeshift reins over her head.

Her back wasn’t particularly high, and with my long legs I could easily have jumped, but I didn’t want to scare her all over again. I stepped onto the block, moving slowly and keeping control of her face with the lead rope pulled slightly taut. With a fistful of mane, I leaned my weight on her back. I shouldn’t even have worried. Once the initial fear was gone and Prism was used to being touched again, riding was something so ingrained in her memory that she didn’t bat an eye when I climbed up right behind her withers. Her coat was still a bit slick, but not terribly and by gripping with my thighs I felt secure enough.

Bareback is something I really know. As a ten-year-old it was how I learned to ride, and learned to fall for that matter.

Eyes up! Guide with your legs! I could hear the distant echos of my first instructor. Don’t stare at the ground, it ain’t going anywhere! Look up, look up, look up.

I actually prefer riding bareback to a saddle—there’s something about being physically connected to the horse’s muscles that I believe builds better riders, and stronger bonds. The paint mare responded to legs cues beautifully. I took her around the arena, through figure eights, and passed the men on the fence. Then, with gentle heel pressure and a clucking noise, I asked her to jog and eventually to stretch into a lope.

She jumped a couple times but I would tuck her chin down and force her into tight little circles as a means of distraction. On our third time around the arena however, as we passed the gait, the blond boy sneezed. Prism spooked and jumped two feet directly sideways. My balance wasn’t prepared and she managed to dislodge me. I hit the ground rolling and was on my feet to catch her even before I heard the “oww!” that was Charlie smacking the boy upside the head.

Colt looked like he was halfway through vaulting over the fence, but the impact hadn’t been hard so I waved him off and rubbed the dull ache at my hip. His eyes had dilated and his hands were clenched but he settled again, straddling the fence post between denim clad  legs.

I took Prism back to the plastic block and mounted again. We worked back up to a lope and down again before I finally reined her to a stop in front of the gate and hopped down.

“Alright, you can ride,” Charlie yielded after I had passed the horse back to the younger boy who had mumbled sorry, and hurried away.

Colt had come around and patted a hand heavily on my shoulder. He looked at me sideways and I saw a new glimmer of respect from the corner of his icy gaze.

“There’s just one more thing,” Charlie was saying. “I want you to take a turn on Louisiana.”

Colt’s fingers that had been resting benignly against my collar bone bit sharply into the skin as his grip contracted suddenly. I yelped as he drug me backward, partially obstructing my view of the other man with his body.

“Charlie, no,” he said dangerously.

“It’s her choice,” said Charlie.

“That damn animal…” Colt spat more viciously than I had ever heard from him.

“It’s. Her. Choice.”  Charlie cut him off loudly.

“Louisiana?” I asked mimicking the way Charlie had said Lou-z-anna. I felt true concern as the hair rose slightly on the back of my neck. Colt was not reacting well, and for him to do so right on the heels of claiming it wasn’t his place to say what I was capable of?

“He’s holy terror incarnate,” said Colt. “Stud horse that got cut too late. Kept all his piss and fire even after the snip.”

“He’s ridable,” said Charlie.

Colt snorted indignantly, “Like hell he his.”

“May I see him?” I asked quietly.

“His paddock is attached to the back of the barn,” Charlie said. “Walk straight through you can’t miss him. I need to know you’re reliable.”

I picked up Colt’s hand from my shoulder and released it gently. “Bucks, it’ll be fine,” I said.

As I walked away I heard both men arguing in hushed tones. Something Charlie said shut Colt up quick and then I was out of earshot.

I stepped over the rolling track for the two doors and tried to adjust my eyes to the sudden shadow. There was an open space to right in front of the tack room. Ropes were bolted to each side of the space so the horses could be cross tied. I check both and was pleased to see quick-release latches attached to each in case of emergency. To the left was a wash room complete with grooming tools and its own hose and drain. Passed the first spaces were stalls—three on each side. All but two of them were empty. In the first there was a miniature pony whose door sported the name “Oreo,” and in the very last stall on the left was a very pregnant palomino.

“Hey momma mare,” I whispered. “I hope you’re due this summer.”

The back doors were fitted in the same way as the front, two enormous planks on rolling tracks. With both arms I separated them enough to slip through.

Charlie was right, there was absolutely no way to miss Louisiana. I heard a shrieking neigh and then the clash of hooves against a metal fence. The buckskin has launched his hindquarters backward and kicked the fence with enough force to roll a small vehicle. Thankfully for the fence he’d only clipped the railing and was now trying to extract one of his back feet from the gap between the bars. With another furious noise, the gelding yanked his foot free and turned to face me.

I thought I had just startled him but it was instantly clear that wasn’t the case. Rolling black eyes shone from his golden face and he tossed his head and bowed his neck so that the midnight mane bucked like boiling tar. He was absolutely massive, built like a brick house and tall as a racehorse. I’d have guessed a cross between a thoroughbred and some type of draft horse had produced him. The signature black strip down his spine was flawless and he had one white foot that pawed the ground before him.

Louisiana reared and charged the fence pulling up short with his ear pinned flat against his neck. That horse had hate built into his soul.

I backed up slowly and shut the barn doors in front of me. I could still hear his heavy pawing and the thunder of hooves as he ran back and forth in behind the fence.

Charlie and Colt were standing behind me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But there is no way in hell I’m going to try getting on the horse.”

A moment of silence passed where I was sure I’d see disappointment on one of their faces. Then the tension broke. Colt smiled and visibly relaxed.

“Thank god,” he said. “For a moment there I thought you were sizing him up.”

“Like I said, lass,” said Charlie. “I was checking your judgment too. Can’t have my wranglers off trying to get themselves killed, and pride will do that to the best riders.”

The older man uncrossed his arms and walloped me hard on the back. Come down here Monday evening. We’ll take a couple of the horses out and I’ll get you acquainted with the land and the business. Colt was right I should have hired you right off.” Then turning to Colt he said, “And you,” he pointed a callused finger at him. “You will call and come by now and again.”

“Yes sir,” said Colt cooly and the smile again flickered on Charlie’s face.

Colt took my arm and lead me out of the barn. “Thank you!” I yelled back, delighted but a bit confused about the temperature drop in their last exchange. My nerves were feeling a little fried after the confrontation with Louisiana so I handed Colt the keys.

He drove home in near silence until finally I asked, “What’s up with you and Charlie?”

“Caught that huh?” He said. “I’ll tell you another time.”

I didn’t dwell on it. They were going to pay me to ride and a string of beautiful horses at that. I thought of the buckskin—he was probably the most gorgeous creature I’d ever seen to date. I didn’t tell Colt but what I had thought back in the barn was, there’s no way in hell I’m getting on that horse today.

 

We drove back around Powder Ridge and soon enough, hit the dirt road and bumped our way back to Coal Creek. I was properly cradling my hands now, resting them palms-up in my lap and trying not to extend or curl my fingers.

Colt looked at my questioningly.

“It was worth it,” I said and he chuckled again.

“Which part? The wood splitting or the riding?”

“Both,” I said stubbornly. My hands hurt but in someways, I felt pleased that I had earned what would become my first bonafide calluses with actual work.

Colt was shaking his head but he did it with a subtle smile and left me alone.

“Why are they keeping that horse?” I asked.

“They won’t for much longer,” he said and I felt my heart sink. “They got him as a rescue but somebody wreaked him, even before they gelded him. For a while Charlie and one of the older stable hands were each taking a turn on him every week, but Adam took a really bad fall week before last. He’ll be lucky if he gets to ride again this year cause he sure as hell won’t be this summer.”

“What about his job?” I asked.

Colt frowned. “Can’t work if he can’t ride,” he said. “But Charlie is going to let him keep bunking above the barn for free, and maybe he’ll be able to do some of the paperwork after a time. He’s still in the hospital now.”

“What happened to him?” I didn’t know Adam but I felt terribly sorry for him anyway.

“Compound fractures in both arms.”

I winced.

Colt continued, “He made a rookie mistake actually. Landed on both hands with his arms locked. It stuffed the upper bones through each of his shoulders and broke both collarbones too. Charlie would never have let you on Louisiana.”

He turned to face me as the first touch of sunset lit his face. “You got your job because you didn’t try though.”

“Who was the blond boy there today,” I asked.

“That worthless thing?” said Colt, then he softened slightly. “He’s new. Loves the idea of being a cowboy but doesn’t have a lick of experience yet. Sorry I don’t remember his name, only met him a couple days ago.”

I watched as the sun dipped lower in the mirror fixed to the passenger side of the truck. The reservoir was barely visible, disappearing in the dust cloud that followed our churning wheels. The sunlight stained the hazy air in shades of brilliant orange, and there was a hint of silver where sun still touched the water. Over the next couple minutes, the glowing orb slipped beneath the far mountain range and the few clouds were lit pink from beneath.

Far in front of us to the east, about thirty degrees above where the other end of the valley rose up to meet the velveteen sky, the first pinpricks of starlight began peeking through the dark.

“It really is beautiful,” I said as Colt passed the little white church and made the final left turn up the road to the cabin.

“Beautiful,” he agreed. He parked in the drive way and turned to face me. A smirk lifted the corner of his mouth and my breath hitched—I was just beginning to learn the dangers of that devilish look.

“What?” I said. Colt took the keys from the ignition and handed them back to me, smiling properly now.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked. “You remembered to plan meat and potatoes right?”

I laughed and since two could poke fun at one another I said simply, “Apples.”

That wiped the smile off his face and I hid my own grin as I hopped from the truck and let myself through the unlocked front door.

“You’re getting ramen again,” I heard him grumble as he trailed me through the door.

I walked into the kitchen and washed my hands before I began digging through the cupboards at random. Colt pulled two bottles of beer from the fridge, popping the cap on one and handing it to me. The cold glass felt amazing on my raw skin, even through the bandages that had survived the day reasonably well.

I pulled canned cubed potatoes, corn, and chopped green chili from the shelves and then walked back into the entryway to face the enormous white freezer set behind the metal food lockers. Stacks stacks of white butcher paper-wrapped parcels occupied the left half of the freezer. The right on the other hand, seemed to be nothing but half-gallon containers of ice cream, frozen candy bars, and at least three tubs of cool whip.

Seriously, Bucks?

I rolled my eyes and selected one of the white paper packages marked, hamburger. 

“Is this actually what it says it is?” I called through the open doorway. There was the low groan of sofa springs as Colt extracted himself from the couch.

“When it’s last year’s elk,” he said, “but it’s ground up.”

“Does it cook any differently?”

“Nah it’s just leaner, although that one is cut with pork fat.”

I kept the packet and closed the lid of the freezer before retreating back into the kitchen. I had to slide passed Colt in the doorway as he made no attempt to move, but I was getting used him taking up too much space at a time. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying my domestic side, but I had to get comfortable in his home eventually—and I wanted it to be mine too. There would be no use in tiptoeing around forever.

He continued to watch me from his propped position in the doorway as I open more cabinets, acquainting myself with the layout of his kitchen. Eventually I found a large casserole dish and a medium skillet. In a cupboard above the stove I found rows of spices—powdered garlic, onion, salt, pepper and cooking oil. Several minutes later, the scent of browning meat filled the cabin and Colt came to hover over my shoulder.

“What are you making?” he asked.

“Meat and potatoes,” I said and then laughed at how close he was trying to get his nose to the pan. “Go sit.”

He scowled and went to pout on the couch with his beer.

After several minutes, he flipped on the radio and a bluesy rift floated out to mingle with the smell of dinner and sense of companionship. I was quickly learning how much Colt disliked silence and wondered how he lived here by himself most of the time.

The improvisation southwest shepherd’s pie went into the oven right after I took the final swig of my own bottle.

“You don’t have internet up here do you?” I asked.

Colt laughed. “Hell no,” he said. “Thank god too. I like being up here to be unplugged from the rest of the world.” He shifted his laptop off his lap after keying in a command for the next song that transmitted remotely. “You can get online from your phone or the cafe if you need something though.”

“How do you have so much music?”

“I buy CD’s,” he said. “Down the mountain whenever I go into town and then I import them to my computer. If you give me yours, I’ll dump a bunch on there.”

“Sure!” I said and retreated to my room to grab my laptop and after hesitating briefly, a book too. Colt began the process of transferring songs to a memory stick and I settled into the armchair by the empty wood stove to read. Acoustic melodies continued to pour softly from the speakers and I could hear Colt clicking away on the keyboard. His legs were probably too long to tuck beneath him so he’d stretched out instead with one booted foot crossed over the opposite ankle.

After twenty minutes the timer went off on the oven. I unfolded myself from the chair, arching my spine with my fists pressed against my lower back. Colt’s eyes flicked down from my face a couple times and I exaggerated the motion by pushing my chest out further. I was growing more comfortable with him by the hour and now I reveled in the opportunity to push his buttons a bit in turn. He looked up at me through a fan of dark lashes. There was the twinkle of amusement in his eye before he said dryly, “the oven mitts are hanging above the stove.”

 

We ate dinner mostly in silence. I was still bursting with questions but Colt was eating so fast I didn’t think he’d be able to answer any of them. He polished off half of the casserole dish by himself, two glasses of water, and another beer over the course of fifteen minutes.

“What did you think?” I asked in a lull.

“This was really good. Like I said, I like meat and potatoes,” he said.

“What else?”

“What else what?” he asked.

“What else do you like?”

I meant the question in terms of food but he smiled wickedly and said, “I like big engines, hard work, bonfires, paying in cash, and sleeping on the ground.”

I couldn’t help the giggle that bubbled up. “You know, you’re a walking stereotype in some ways, Bucks.

“This is just the way God made me,” he said and stood to clear the dinner plates. “Now go sit on the couch so I can look at your hands.”

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