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On the Horizon
man jabbed his heels into the horse's flanks and it moved along at a swifter pace. If they did not turn back before the night, they would be lost to the wilderness as well.
Three nights ago At the dinner table, bathed in the wavering candle light they sat. Their plates unattended to and the girl in their bed. Their eyes not meeting across the mesquite wood.
"We don't need em'," she said.
"We can make it without two."
"Maybe, but I won't be gone long so it doesn't matter."
"I don't want you to go."
"Neither do I."
"I'll get them back." She looked up across the tallow light. A small spot of chemical reaction, turning their features to pitch.
"What if you don't?"
"What do you mean if I don't?"
"What if you don't find em'?"
"Then I'll come back."
"No you won't." No, he would not. He would find them or die on the range.
"You keep her inside and you stay with her."
"I know." He stood and walked around to her. He got on his knees and held her hands.
"We need the extra money and nothin's gonna' happen."
"To me or to you?"
"To both." She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. He stood and went out to the stable.
They came upon a ravine, within, a mournful lowing. The man reined up on the horse and dropped to the ground. At the edge of the ravine, the cow and her calf below. There were hoof prints at the precipice and a noticeable track leading down to the cow. She had slipped and fell down the rock slope. He sat down and slowly let himself slide to the dry creek bed. The cow was sprawled on its side in the creek bed and the calf lay beside it. Letting out despondent tones, the calf was dirty. The man walked over to the cow and pulled the legs out from under her. She let out a cry, pained and afraid. Her legs were broken, one in the front and the back. He looked to the left and right, the ravine continued in both directions. There’d be now saving the cow. He sat down in the dirt and rubbed his hands to his eyes. He looked to the sky, clouds; a piercing primrose, they clothed the sun. He climbed up the rock face and found rope in his saddle bag. He scrambled back down the slope and tied the calf's legs, connecting the knots with a cross line. He slung the calf over one shoulder, diagonally down his back. The cow lowing all this time. The man gripped the rock wall and began to climb. The calf swinging its head violently, threatening to drag them man off the rock. He gritted his teeth and pulled himself over the edge. Cutting the cross line with a knife, he put the calf on the horse. The sky was dark now, he didn’t know where they were. Riding across the midnight scrub land, everything was familiar and everything was not. The same bush weed, no, different. The same rock, no, different. Crossing the repeated scene. Where was the ranch in this freezing dark. His coat was nothing to the wind, it found its way to his heart. Shivering, he reined up on the palomino and looked around. What was there to be seen that had not already been? Somewhere in the gloom, the frightening cry of a wolf. They would gather, somewhere in the murky shadows, surrounding the man and his warrants. Their teeth finding hold in flesh and tearing, tearing. The man looked to the black tumor of a hill that was to the north. The only place that would give some advantage. He cantered the horse up the slope and on the peak he unsaddled. He picked up the calf and let it down softly. It mooed quietly and he decided to tie its mouth, lest it attract unwanted attention. He couldn’t make a fire, there was nothing to feed it with. So he pulled out the rifle from the side holster on the horse and he sat with it, butt into the ground. The palomino snorted and shuffled its hooves. “Settle down,” he said softly. The day’s clouds blanketed the moon and he was blind for that. Everything, the same unjust night. The vague shapes of the Cascade mountains rose up to the west. Yawning maws, silent sentinels that were witness to this moment. Wind pulled his Stetson slowly up his head and jammed it down hard. They had to make it to the day. If he could just see the sun, he might find the way back to the ranch. The cow and her calf had managed to find a gap in the wooden fencing. He noticed their absence at noon when he was feeding the calves. He rode hard for three days before he saw them crest the hill. The locales in the second and third days of flight were unknown to him and he would navigate home by landmarks. But there was nothing in substance to that now. The dark consumed what memories he had made hastily in the panicked pursuit. Again came the slow cry of a wolf, closer now. The man pulled the calf to him, for warmth and to protect it. He felt the calf’s side rise and fall with his hand. It’s breathing was not static but irregular.
“It’s alright, we’ll be okay.” That may very well not be true, but you will not accept it. He moved his eyes across the dark, he could not let them be still or he would fail to see movement. There, at the base of the hill, a slinking shadow. He pulled the rifle over to rest on his lap. The darker smudge trotted a few lengths up the hill and stopped. The wind blew, soft and eternal. Whatever happens, it will go on without you. There wouldn’t be just one, there had to be more close by. He remained fixated on the wolf at the base of the hill. It was then that he decided to leave. They would follow him but remaining here was suicide. He hefted the calf up again onto the horse and he stepped up into the saddle. With one hand on the calf and one in the reigns he jabbed his spurs into the palomino’s side. It reared a little but set off with fear. The man pointed the horse to the wolf. It was foolhardy to turn away and expect there to be no others behind him. The wolf leapt aside with a guttural snarl of hunger. The man dare not look back for fear of what he might see. The only hope was to retrace what he believed were his steps. An unseen trail in the night. All the while, during this life or death, the clouds began to part just so. Revealing the luminous moon, a whitewashed crystal sphere, dimpled softly. The man looked up and reveled in the refracted light. It was now that he must know his position and it was now that he must know the path. With the pack wolves bearing down on them on plain, he scanned the territory. There, the ravine. The man had circled back on it during the pursuit in fault. He pulled the palomino alongside the crag, still galloping. Below, the cow was silent but moving slightly. They passed the cow, above on the cliff, and the man rode hard. Soon they reached the beginning of the cut and the man turned the horse down into the ravine. The wolves followed, silent save their footfalls. The man passed the cow and in a blink she was gone. A frightened gasp and it was over. The man turned and witnessed the wolf pack gorging on the cow. "Christ." They continued on in the dark, a rider and his mount, stoic to the unknowing observer. When it was morning they crested a hill and below the land gave way into a small bracken wood town. A singular path splitting the shanty houses. He let up on the horse and jumped to the ground. Leading it by the reins, he walked down the hill. A few people were milling around, aimless as livestock. they continued on and came to the largest building in town. In big hand chopped letters "Hotel". He tied the horse to the hitching fence and put the calf over his shoulder. The townsfolk's eyes followed the man and the calf, hungry and bright. inside, a few tables and no chairs. A man at the bar, washing glasses with a dirty rag and his saliva.
"You goan' have ta' take that calf outside stranger, aint' hygienic."
"Is there anywhere in town I can stay with my calf and horse?"
"Naw, but you can stay in the hotel as long as you don't bring in animals."
"There's no stable?"
"There's nothing to put in one if we had."
"You don't have any horses?"
"Naw." The bartender put the glass down and leaned on the plains wood table. "If you need a room or a drink then pony up. If not, get out." The man looked at the bartender. Wind scoured skin and wisps of hair.
"Okay then." He turned and pushed through the swinging doors. There were two men untying his horse from the post. "Hey." They looked up from the horse. The man pulled his knife, "Get away from the horse." The men were dirty and haggard.
"No need to be hostile friend," said one.
"Get in the street." The two men stepped backwards. Onlookers appeared in windows. The man put the calf on the horse and saddled up. He sheathed his knife and pulled the rifle from the saddle bag. Thank God they hadn't seen it before he came outside. He Trained the sight on chest of the man who had spoken. "How do I get to Tocoa from here."
"That's dern' far. How'd you get the whole ways out here?"
"Well, I guess you would go back the way you came."
"I don't rightly know sir. If you ride long enough, you'll probably get there sometime." The man held the rifle a little longer before putting it back in the saddle bag. He turned the horse around and headed back uphill outside of town.
"Three more days baby girl." He wished and dreaded it all together.