Fiction by Abra Staffin Wiebe
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Serenade of Blood & Silver is a fantasy story about a drifter who rescues an abused horse that is not what it seems. When they flee into the Far Desert to escape pursuit, they sign their death warrants, and the only way they can survive is if they learn to rely on each other. The setting of Serenade of Blood & Silver is influenced by the American Old West and by sub-Saharan West Africa, where I lived for three years.
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"Ngaari Baydi bodewol poyngol
Na laamna danewol girrayel Aayi
Nari dawla tiinde tilsaay
The song filtered faintly through the walls of the bedroom, but Saul was mighty grateful for it. The stench of sickness filled the room, and the curtains were drawn tight to keep out the afternoon sun. The warm, close air of the room weighed heavy on him. The song gave him something else to think on.
"No need to bedeck a face already lucky," the young voice sang, switching to a language Saul could understand, though he could hardly hear the words, "because beauty cannot be bought."
The hiss and spatter of burning sulfur drowned out the song.
Saul shifted his feet.
Madam Dorothy clicked her tongue impatiently, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. She stood so quietly by the bedroom door that he had forgotten she was there, though he couldn't think how. She was a small woman, and plain, but it took only a look at her cold gray eyes to know that you forgot her at your peril. She was the boss lady. She'd summoned him here, to the sickroom of the stableman whose job he'd taken over, temporary-like.
Saul tried to figure if she was displeased with him. Had he greeted her properly when he'd entered the room? He was as clumsy with proper folk as he was deft with a horse's reins, and he'd lost a passel of jobs because of it.
His shoulders relaxed when he remembered. He'd managed the proprieties before the sight of Lance lying on the rune-painted bed with the alchemist bending over him had driven all other thoughts from his head. Lance had been struggling so hard to breathe that he couldn't even greet Saul in return.
Madame Dorothy's tame alchemist threw more sulfur to burn on the spider stove under Lance's bed. Saul wondered why Madame Dorothy didn't hire on a competent herb-witch instead of an alchemist. She'd never struck him as a gambler.
Most everyone knew that alchemists weren't reliable. They were prone to playing with unstable elements without paying any attention to the folks around them. Sometimes they killed themselves in unsavory ways, sometimes they hurt a man who was just passing through, and sometimes, just sometimes, they turned sand into precious aluminum. Their incantations could ensorcell a man who listened too close, just by hinting that things didn't really have to be that way. Just a bit of concentration, some dust from a whirlwind, a clever counterweight system-- and life would be different. The pretty girl in town would smile at you, your pa's ranch hands would respect you, and the bad men in the saloon would buy you drinks. Hell, they might even vote you mayor.
There were always young fools who thought they were slick. A few of 'em even survived to be old fools. Madame Dorothy'd never struck Saul as a fool, neither.
"As you can see," she said, "Lance's fever hasn't passed yet."
"I've spoken with the head stableman about how you've been getting on in the warded stable, Saul," she said.
"Yes, ma'am." His stomach felt like it had turned to lead.
"He says you've done a good job."
"Thank you, ma'am!"
"He said you have a good hand with the khel." She smiled, a brief curve of her lips that hardly warmed her face. "He told me you've been gentling the new black filly."
"Yes'm." Saul swallowed.
Lance's job in the warded stable was just grooming the tame horses, feeding them, and taking care of the inevitable result. Saul'd meant to keep to that, but when he'd seen the poor black filly smashing her hooves against her stall, his heart had gone out to her. He couldn't help himself. When he saw a creature in need, he just naturally did what he could to help 'em. He knew he'd overstepped his territory.
"I'm pleased," Madame Dorothy said.
Saul blinked. He gathered his courage enough to say, "She'd do well with a turn in the corral, ma'am. She's not able to run, and I think it's chafing at her."
Madame Dorothy's smile shifted to an expression he didn't recognize and then returned. "Soon," she said. "She needs horseshoes before I'll let her out of the warded stable. I don't want her trying to run and hurting herself. She's a valuable addition to my collection. None of the other ranch owners have anything like my collection, do they?"
"No'm," Saul mumbled.
It didn't set right with him to hear her talking about the khel that way, like they were just things to count up and hoard, things valuable only because nobody else had them. Khel were creatures of heart and will, from the commonest pony to the high-strung mare who had enough fey in her blood that her hoofs never touched the ground. They weren't things.
He looked away from Madame Dorothy's gray eyes and his gaze fell upon the bed. The alchemist, his lips pursed in concentration, lifted blood-filled leeches from Lance's bared stomach. He smiled as he carefully placed the seven bloated leeches in an inscribed silver basin. Running horses chased the basin's border, Saul noted with a part of his mind, even as his stomach heaved. He was grateful he hadn't tucked into dinner yet.
The sight of blood brought back old memories that ached like half-healed wounds. He pushed them from his mind, but the ache lingered.
"I'd best be getting back to my duties, ma'am," he said.
Madame Dorothy nodded, her attention on the alchemist's ministrations and her face impassive.
Saul backed out of the room, closed the door behind him, and walked out with a mite more speed than was strictly courteous. The ranch house was the nicest place Saul had ever set foot in, through all his time on the trail. The floors were made from real wood instead of stone, and the sitting mats had a mighty pretty pattern dyed into them. Once the sickroom door was closed, the air inside was cool and sweet-smelling.
As soon as he was outside, he took a deep breath, letting the natural, pungent smell of horses and dirt chase out that deceptive sweetness.
Saul started walking across the stableyard, but he stopped when he heard the song. The half-breed stableboy softly sang, "Beauty cannot be bought, except by a faithful heart." Saul looked over and saw the boy. His eyes were closed, and his head leaned back to rest on the worn mud-brick wall of the tack shed. "And a song sung to the desert wind," the boy finished in what was barely more than a whisper across the sand.
Saul waited a moment, but the boy stayed silent, his eyes closed. He wanted to thank the stableboy, somehow, but he didn't have the right words. He sighed and then spotted the half-full bucket of water sitting beside the boy. Some thoughtless ranch hand had set it there to catch the monsoon rains that poured from the roof of the shed.
Saul walked over, swung up the bucket, and splashed it onto the ground. The eyes of the half-breed boy sitting in the shade snapped open. Seeing the puddle of water on the ground, he cast a shocked look at Saul.
"Better to waste water than have us all come down with swamp fever," Saul told the boy shortly. "It ain't a pleasant sight."
"Aiwa, ab�." The boy ducked his head in acknowledgement.
If Lance had swamp fever, they couldn't afford to breed eyedrunks in the water. If only one of them managed to drink some tainted blood, it would spread it around until the whole ranch was fever-struck. Not leaving water standing about would help, but eyedrunks were mighty hard to be rid off. They were worse than mosquitoes any day of the cycle. People could swat 'em dead, and folks swathed themselves in layers of cloth during the worst of the rainy season, but khel were out of luck, no matter how much they shivered their skin and twitched their tails.
Saul couldn't stand to see his horses suffer. Back in the days when he worked his family's small spread, he'd bartered with Chadd�r� Framsted for her eyedrunk repellent. Skunkweed, gold dust, and God only knew what else went into it, but when rubbed around eyes, nose, and mouth it kept the eyedrunks at bay.
Madam Dorothy's warded stable probably did the same and more, Saul thought as he walked towards it. She took good care of her...collection. The word left a bad taste in his mouth. He'd never seen one of her special khel sick. He knew the stable's wards guarded against thieves somehow. It was a palace for her treasures, but the common herd didn't get so much as their noses inside.
They didn't want to, either; when he put them through their paces on a long lead they shied away from the special stable. Even highbred horses, usually more intelligent and less likely to spook at a whiff of enchantment, fought the bit when they were first led between the horseshoe-studded doors to their new home.
Once inside, they didn't want to leave, acting perfectly content with their strange new companions. The highbred beauties and breeding stallions were stablemates with fickle, wilder beasts. Some of the khel were vicious, some were impossibly fair of form, but when you sifted out the chaff, they were still horses. Saul knew how to deal with horses just fine, which was more than he could claim when he worked with other folks. And the amount of dung Madam Dorothy's darling pegasus produced was surely every bit as much as a regular horse would. It stank, too. Saul didn't envy the stableman in charge of the pegasus.
Still, when the rainy season ended, he had hopes of being permanently promoted to working the warded stable. The job got under the skin of the ranch hands; most rattled their hocks and moved along after a while. The last stable hand that left had been roped into clipping the pegasus' wings; after his ribs healed, he'd signed on for a cattle drive to the Green and hotfooted it on out of town.
Usually Saul wrangled Madam Dorothy's everyday khel: her mustangs, mares, geldings, and even a mule or two. The highbred khel were what he'd signed on for, though. Much as he loved the regular horses, there was something special about their finer cousins: more intelligence, maybe.
Judging from what he'd seen today, Lance wasn't going to be fit for hard work for some time yet. Likely as not, he'd want to move on after. Lance's position had some good things about it, like regular pay and not too much hassle about dealing with other folks, but Saul had it in his head to replace the man who told Lance what to do. The head stableman was a good twenty sunseasons older than Saul, white-haired and feeble, but still sharp enough to keep the boys from getting rowdy. Saul hoped to become the old man's understudy.
Some might consider him too old to learn to handle the exotic khel, but various hints the head stableman had dropped showed that he thought otherwise. Usually, Saul didn't much care how other folks reckoned him, but hearing that the head stableman thought well of his touch with the khel had sparked some warmth in him.
Saul hesitated in front of the warded stable's doors for a moment. He still wasn't quite accustomed to the tingle of magic running over his skin each time he passed through them. Any thief would feel more than a tingle. When his duties were changed to be inside the warded stable, that alchemist had done something to let him pass through the doors. He'd had to cut his thumb and let a few drops of blood fall onto the alchemist's silk handkerchief. It hadn't sat quite right with him, but he'd gritted his teeth and followed Madame Dorothy's order. The head stableman had warned him not to try and enter the back room of the stable, but he was free to tend the khel inside their stalls.
The air inside was humid and smelled of horses, manure, and fresh hay. Some of the khel didn't smell quite like regular horses, but it was still a good smell. The khel raised their heads at the sound of the stable door opening. The highbred mares extended their necks over the gates to their stalls and whickered. The stallions snorted a mild warning. They knew he was no threat to their mares, but the proprieties must be observed.
He squinted at the Near Desert ponies' enclosure. He had to study it for a full minute before he spotted them. They were clinging to the wall on either side of the door, as quiet as mice, and the dark hue of their hide made them nearly impossible to spot. A wry smile lifted the corner of his mouth. They were planning some mischief, no doubt.
The pegasus was prancing in the center of his stall as if he were about to take flight once more. A large window had been cut in the roof of the stable above his stall, and he stood in a pool of afternoon sunlight. His cropped wing feathers gleamed like an angel's as he slowly flapped his wings back and forth. An expectant light was in his eyes as he saw Saul.
Saul stopped next to an empty stall. A burlap sack of applegrass sat on a worn wooden shelf inside. Grooming tools and brushes were neatly arranged on a low table. A stack of faded horse blankets leaned against the wall beside a couple of tin pails half-filled with water. He looked at the still water and frowned. Madam Dorothy would surely ward against disease carriers like eyedrunks, but it didn't feel right to see the water uncovered. He shrugged off his unease, picked up the burlap sack, and tucked a brush into his belt.
The flea-bitten gray stabled next to the empty stall stuck his head over the door, nostrils whuffling. The sweet smell of freshly scythed applegrass had all of his attention. His ears swiveled forward to follow the sound of Saul's footsteps. The swaybacked gray didn't look anything special until his laban-white eyes turned to regard Saul. His night-spangled milky eyes rolled to focus on the bag held in Saul's hand, for all the world as if he knew exactly where the applegrass was. And maybe he did, Saul thought wryly. The gray had over a hundred sunseasons worth of experience; he could probably outfox a cardsharp. Saul was most wary around the khel another man might size up as nothing but broken-down nags.
He moved down the row, doling out handfuls of the red-edged grass and tallying the horses who were awaiting their treat. All of them were in fine fettle. A paint nosed his chest eagerly, investigating his pockets.
"Here you go," he chuckled, holding a long sheaf of applegrass on his palm for the mare to lip up.
He pushed her away gently when she started looking for more. She blew at him, mildly annoyed, but still complacent from the calming effects of the grass.
The Near Desert ponies were still motionless when he reached their stall. He lifted the sack of applegrass and jogged it so the smell wafted through the stable. In an instant, they moved to rear directly in front of him. If he hadn't known they were there, he would have thought they'd appeared from nowhere. It would have startled him mightily, maybe even into dropping the sack of applegrass, which he figured was their intention. He didn't move until they settled down, and then he gave them each a handful of applegrass, ignoring the reproachful looks they gave him at his stinginess.
He saved his favorite for last. The highbred black filly was still a mite skittish, but she had never caused trouble or tried to hurt him. Highbred horses were smarter than the average packhorse and could be vicious or jealous. A crazy stallion had once set a primitive ambush for Saul. He'd gotten a purple horseshoe-shaped bruise on his back from that encounter. Though the mark had faded, the memory of it still ached before a storm. During the rainy season it started to pain him a bit before sun-high, and the rain poured down like clockwork at high noon.
When the black filly first arrived, it took four men holding lead ropes to maneuver her inside without getting hurt. The alchemist had followed her all the way, chanting under his breath, but she hadn't looked that subdued. She'd attacked anyone who attempted to enter her stall, and they'd had to shovel hay over the top of the door for her to eat.
It took Saul a week of easing ever-closer, talking mildly, and making no sudden moves, before he could convince her to accept a ripe cactus spike from him, usually a treat that horses would fight over. When he cleaned out her stall, she sidled around him as if she wasn't sure why he bothered. She still always sniffed suspiciously at the hay and water before nibbling at it. When he ran a horse brush over her back, he felt her skin quivering as if she wanted to bolt and only held still by the force of her will.
She never got rowdy or hassled him in any way, though. If he needed her to move, he only had to push gently against her side and she'd skitter away, watching his every move. She suffered him to put a lead rope on her, and yesterday he'd even persuaded her to allow the head stableman to walk her up and down the length of the warded stable.
Her fine bone structure and obvious intelligence persuaded him that she was from a good line. She was young, alert, and healthy. She had tolerated his opening her mouth, so he knew that she was just getting in her permanent teeth. She was so supple that he would have guessed her younger than the sunseason or so which that meant. Saul reckoned she came from a pretty rare and closely guarded line of horses. She was the only mare he'd ever seen with canines.
"Hey, girl," he called softly as he approached the rune-painted door of her stall.
He figured all the extra runes painted around her stall were to guard her from thieves. Any rustler stealing from Madam Dorothy would have to be either crazy or new in town, he guessed, but the lady was always cautious.
A snort came from inside the stall, and he smiled.
"Come on. Easy, girl." He leaned against the stall door, dug a big handful of applegrass out of the sack, and waved it in the air. "I brought a treat."
The black filly took a few cautious steps forward, her long neck stretched out.
"Nobody's going to hurt you, girl," he said.
She snorted and gave him a considering look. He gave her one stalk of applegrass over the stall door before unlatching it and going inside her stall. She held her ground, though one foreleg stamped as if she wanted to bolt.
"It's fine. You're safe," he said soothingly.
He showed her the handful of applegrass, holding it close to his chest. She tossed her head and stretched it partway towards him.
"Today you're going to have to come a little bit closer," he told her.
She sidled one reluctant step forward, and then another, until she was close enough to eat from his hand. He ran one hand over her head. She pulled her head back sharply, and he thought she was going to bolt, but then she lowered her head to the treat once more.
A rare smile creased Saul's face, one that few people had seen.
The next morning, Saul hummed a soft tune as he opened the doors of the warded stable. It died on his lips. The reek of blood underlying the tang of metal and panicked sweat raised his hackles. There was a powerful ruckus going on at the other end of the stable, behind the door he was forbidden to enter. When the stalls rattled from a blow, he fought to keep his shoulders from hunching. All the khel were unsettled.
The mares were huddled against the stable walls, trying to move closer together for the protection of the herd, while the stallions shifted their hooves and flared their nostrils. The Near Desert ponies clung to the wall of their enclosure, their claws were fully extended, and the shifting sand tones of their coats spoke more of unease than mischief. The pegasus was pacing back and forth in his spacious stall, ruffling his cropped wing feathers and tossing his head, looking up through the window high above him as if he wished to flee.
Saul walked down the aisle between the stalls, stopping occasionally to scratch a nervous horse's poll. That only calmed them for a few moments before the noise unsettled them again. Maybe it made them recollect how they'd been caught and hauled in, or maybe they smelled something in the air that he couldn't.
He could hear just fine, though. Between the crashes and underneath the uneasy shifting noises from the rest of the khel, he could make out a muttered incantation. He remembered Lance's sickroom with a shudder. That same sulfur reek slunk through the air of the stable like a wild dog sniffing around a jid�d house.
Hoping a treat would settle the khel down, he picked up the burlap sack of applegrass. He hoped the treat would distract them until whatever was causing the commotion was finished. Uncanny goings-on at Madam Dorothy's stable didn't take him aback, but this was upsetting the horses. Whatever upset his khel upset him.
He doled out the applegrass, scratched a dapple mare behind her ears, slapped a highbred bay gelding's shoulder when he pushed too close, and promised a vain and highly-strung stallion a thorough brushing as soon as the rest of the stable was taken care of and that unholy noise ended. He ambled past the stalls, calming down the horses and sharing the applegrass with a more generous hand than usual.
When he reached the end of the stalls, his brow furrowed. The black filly's stall was empty, its door sagging inside on stressed leather hinges. The water trough was knocked over and a fresh, deep dent marred the wall.
Saul steadied himself against the wall. Black spots floated in his eyes. He was so mad he couldn't breathe for a bit. That pretty filly had been wary, and he had taught her to trust people, him with his treats and his soothing words.
"Nobody's going to hurt you, girl," he had said.
And she'd believed him, at least long enough to make it impossible for her to put up a real fight. He'd seen her when she first came to the stable. Loose in her stall, she should have been able to hold anybody off...if she hadn't trusted them.
Saul strode out of the abandoned stall. He left behind the bag of applegrass. He wouldn't need it. He didn't aim to calm anything down just now. He headed straight for the ruckus. The other khel in the stable figured out he was abandoning them and stopped calmly chewing their applegrass. The gelding nearest him whickered with concern, trying to shift closer to him but blocked by the stall's door.
Saul disregarded the horses shifting uneasily around him and strode the few feet to the large, aluminum-bound, mountain-pine doors at the end of the stable. Behind the doors, he could hear muffled kicks and wild shrieks that sounded almost human. His eyes narrowed into hard lines. He paused for just a heartbeat in front of the warded door. Then he gritted his teeth and slammed the heels of his palms against the door.
The searing pain threw him back into memory.
Once, when he was just a little 'un, his pappy had taken him on a cattle drive all the way to the Green. All the way to the sea. When he saw the blue-green waters lapping around Heartblood Cliff, young Saul disobeyed his father for the first and last time in his life. He ran straight into the water, feeling it flow around him. His father never shouted for him to get back. Even when Saul began screaming in pain, he never said a word. He rode his horse to the edge of the water and pulled his long rawhide lasso out of its loop behind his saddle. Saul's back arched in pain, his eyes bleeding, and then he felt the harsh sting of the rope as it wrapped around his flailing arm and dragged him to shore.
He blacked out, but his mama told him that his pappy didn't holler or curse. He just peeled off the clinging tinderfish one by one, until all that was left were three small spiral-shaped burns and a ferocious raw lasso wound on his right forearm.
That pain was nothing. Saul's legs gave way as he half-stumbled, half-fell through the wards guarding the back room. He saw buzzards floating above the bodies of his slaughtered horses and kin. He shook his head doggedly until the spots cleared from his vision. From his knees, Saul looked up and straight into the still eyes of Madam Dorothy. He felt cold, cold to the bone. He smelled burned horsehair and flesh at the same moment that her gaze was blocked by a black, screaming nightmare.
His missing black filly--she had become his, somehow--reared between them, her hooves flashing silver. He hauled himself to his feet, swaying, and staggered drunkenly towards her. Her eyes rolled. She kicked out with her hind legs, smashing a rail-thin man with alchemic symbols embroidered on his black Stetson against the stable walls. His neck snapped. Saul knew how it felt to break a rabbit's neck with his hands. The dull cracking noise sounded the same. The silver basin the alchemist had been holding fell to the hard-packed dirt floor, denting its chasing.
Madam Dorothy's muddled gray eyes flashed sparks, and a breeze stirred the humid air. Saul lifted his head. The air smelled like the desert before a storm. She stood up to her full five feet of height. "Why are you trying to hinder me?" she whispered, raising her hands to her mouse-brown bun.
She looked like she was just patting her hair to check that it looked proper for company, but Saul didn't think the move was anything so simple. He tried to back away, treating her with the same respect he would a mother rattlelizard. He stared into her eyes, seeing a dreadful determination. He raised his arm to guard himself; he would not back down.
The black filly rammed her shoulder against Saul as she bolted through the heavy doors behind him. His trance broken, he reached to lever himself onto her back, but his scarred forearm seized up on him. Grimly, he ran after her, halting only to open stall doors behind him. The Near Desert ponies scuttled onto the walls of the stable, making pleased whirring noises to each other. They moved easily over and around the upset khel in the hall. Saul limped faster, trying to make it all the way down the hall to the stable door before the horses bolted. "Wait!" he heard Madame Dorothy shout. "Don't take it out of the stable!"
He reached the door barely ahead of the herd he'd released. The injured filly reared, slamming her front hooves against the barred door. Blood welled around her silver horseshoes. She recklessly smashed her hooves against the hooks holding the bar in place. Saul could see that the hooks were newly dented, but the door held firm. He moved in front of her before she could rear again and lifted the bar from the door, hurling it to the side.
She froze, giving Saul the chance to grab a pair of saddlebags and a heavy canteen from the pile next to the door. After a moment, she put down her head and kicked into a gallop. Saul grabbed her mane with one fist and swung himself partially onto her back as she bolted through the wards. Fire shivered down his back. The filly stumbled, tossing her head in defiance of the pain. His legs clamped around her side and back, Saul hung down the side of her body as she ran through the courtyard. He heard horses screaming in pain from the stable they were quickly leaving behind. He closed his eyes briefly.
They galloped by the corral. As they passed its gate, Saul stretched to unlatch it. His arm struck the fence post in passing. His hand throbbed in time with his heart, useless to him for a time. He cradled it under the breast of his duster, grimly hauling himself one-armed onto his steed's back. The soot-black filly flew like a wild thing, galloping through the courtyard, dodging stablehands who shouted in alarm.
She veered around the rise that led to the ranch house, her legs churning without any aim. Her blood-clotted mane slapped his face as they raced towards the Far Desert. Flying foam smeared the back of his hand. He saw a termite mound in her path and yanked her mane until she turned slightly. It was barely enough, but her legs didn't snap, he didn't fall under a rolling horse, and they weren't slowed enough for any of Madam Dorothy's men to catch them.
Soon the filly tired and settled into a steady rolling pace. Her footing was sound enough that Saul risked his precarious perch by turning and looking towards the ranch fast dwindling behind them. He saw a swarm of horses boiling from it. A few bore riders clinging to their backs like dark ticks. They were mostly rounding up the other horses. Only one pursued him, a gray speck riding a bay stallion. The stallion and rider moved as if they were one, hell-bent on his capture.
Saul swore and bent further over the filly's mane. "Run, girl, run as you value your freedom! I reckon she plans to string me up for a horse thief. The good Lord only knows what you'd suffer."
A brief burst of strength carried them further from the ranch, the clapboard buildings of Lastown, and the shadow of the s�q nestled beyond them. The filly's chest heaved like a blacksmith's bellows. The white-hot sun shifted in the sky, a few dark clouds beginning to huddle around it. Leafy thorn bushes wavered from the heat rising off the cracked ground. It was sweltering hot inside his duster. The filly had slowed enough that he could ease his death-grip on her mane to wipe the dust and sweat from his face with his good hand, before he wove his fingers back into her mane. The humidity sunk into his garments, wearing him down.
He searched for anything that might give them the advantage, the chance to dodge away. They were on the edges of the Near Desert, deep enough in that he began to recall landmarks. He rode past a twisted white tree, its bare limbs contorted. A few more branches had fallen to driftwood than he remembered, but the charred lightning strike running the length of its trunk was as familiar to him as the rope scar on his own forearm. He recalled the storm that killed it; lightning cleaved the sky, gulches flooded along the dry beds of old rivers, and the crashing thunder maddened his small herd.
A breath of cool air blew over his sweating neck. He watched a cloud's shadow creep across the ground. It was almost high noon. The storm clouds crowded the angrily dimming sun, as they would every day until the end of the rainy season. Saul's shoulders began to ease. The rain would wash away the filly's hoofprints and make it pretty rough for any tracker to hunt them; there would surely be trackers cutting his trail, once they found it. If he and the filly kept going long enough, they'd be safe from pursuers. Beyond that, he couldn't figure.
The sky roared. Beneath him, the filly stumbled, going almost to her knees. Tossed around, he grabbed her mane with both hands, tightening his legs' grip on her back. She reared her head, struggling to her feet. A knife-edge of worry slashed his heart. On the horizon he saw a growing gray blemish; Madam Dorothy was gaining on them. By now, the head wrangler would have organized a makeshift posse to follow her--and him. Men he'd shared cornpone with and sat with around the bunkhouse talking about their gals. Well, he'd listened to them talk. Mebbe didn't say much himself.
Determined men would follow on fast, fresh horses, once they rounded them up. There would be a hanging posse coming to catch him, the horse thief. He shifted his weight, urging the filly faster. She felt his mood and tried to oblige, but he could feel the strain in her muscles and knew she wouldn't be able to make it for long. Her breath rasped as she galloped, too weary to do anything but follow his lead without fighting. She didn't even flinch when he drove her down the steep side of a gulch. She fought to keep even footing as they ran along the slight trickle of water in the middle of the ravine. Barely crawling a handspan from the stream, a faint, weak undine stretched her arms imploringly to the gathering storm clouds.
Saul didn't even try to work out how the elemental got stranded; he had enough to fret over. He kept an eye on the dark clouds above. The sun was almost completely covered. Ahead of him, he finally saw the trail up the other side of the gully that he'd been searching for. It was further away than he remembered. A tentative rain sprinkle danced along the brim of his hat. He closed his eyes to pray for forgiveness, then dug the heels of his boots hard into the sides of the weary horse.
She screamed in indignation, sounding human in her pain and rage. He managed to hang on when she started to rear, but she was too tired to do more than raise her front hooves off the ground. She bolted forward, and the heavens opened up. The bloody hoofprints she left were washed clean by a torrent of rain. Saul bent over her back, gripping her mane with both hands despite the searing pain in his right arm. Around her ankles, dirty water frothed, pouring down the old riverbed. For a few notches, the river would live again.
The filly struggled against the current, tossing her head in panic. Without warning, she changed her aim. She cut across the current. There was more deliberation to her battle against the water. She must have glimpsed the rough trail leading to the river bluffs and figured it for an escape. Saul had hoped for that, but he could do nothing now but hang on for dear life. The water surged up to her knees, slowing her, but she was able to clamber up the trail when they reached it. Her rear hoof slipped once, but she pulled it back right speedily.
Saul glanced down, following the spiraling path of the clod of earth she had dislodged. The freed undine spun joyously in the reborn river beneath them. He hoped that none of the posse that must surely be following them would try to ford the river while she cavorted there. Man stood no chance against such a creature in full flood, and Saul bore no ill will against the men that trailed them. He lifted his gaze across the river. Through the watery veil of the storm, he saw a lone rider on the other bank. Waiting.
He hunched deeper into his duster and the small shelter it offered from the stinging rain, turning his weary horse away from the river. Before the river's passage was completely obscured by the rain, he glanced behind them. Despite the torrent, the rider on her horse stood unmoved, a force of Nature fit to counter the rage of the heavens.
As soon as they were out of spyglass range, he headed in a different bearing. He had no faith it would confuse a tracker for long, but he would throw down any distraction that he could. They would be hidden in a box canyon before the storm cleared in two notches. It was rough for him to head back to his old homestead, but he knew the land. Few of the ranch hands knew about it. He didn't cotton much to talking about his past. A couple of them might have ridden there, once, many sunseasons ago.
Saul swung off the filly when the ground became rocky. It did no good to wish for a lead rope. He figured she was too tuckered to bolt regardless, but he kept his hand on her neck. It wasn't long until they both could rest.
They walked over a slight rise and around a scattering of large boulders, and he was home. Saul led the filly down the narrow, overgrown trail to the bottom of the box canyon, unbarring the gate to let them in to the canyon floor. In the far corner, the rock and driftwood house still stood firm, its Osage orange hedge threatening to overgrow the path, but the stable next to it had stove in. He let go of the filly and walked up the slate steps of the house, stamping his boots on the stoop before going further. A firm push from the filly's head propelled him all the way inside. She followed him, twitching her hide. He began to herd her out, but with the stable gone there was no shelter outside, and she was shivering something fierce.
He needn't fuss over her dirtying the house; his parents had never owned much that was fancy, and the plain furnishings that remained were covered in dust. Termites had made a fine meal from his mother's old rocking chair. It lay collapsed against the ground. There were dried crumbs on the dirt floor. Drifters must have stopped by to shelter. He didn't begrudge them. He searched the small kitchen for grub, but none remained.
Saul turned to the old pie safe leaning against the wall. It looked undisturbed; they might be in luck. He leaned against the wall and inched the cabinet away from it. Underneath was a trapdoor set even with the floor. He hauled up the tin cover and cautiously climbed down the stone ladder steps set into the dugout wall, testing each rung before he rested his full weight on it.
There was no light down there. Saul felt the wall with his left hand, patting along a narrow built-in shelf until he found the hurricane lamp with tinder and flint, just as his mother had left them. Holding his breath, he struck the flint. The tinder lit on the first strike. The wax-paper box had kept it dry and usable all the sunseasons he'd been gone. When the candle inside the lamp was lit, the wick's light filtering through the dusty glass, he could see the pantry clearly.
Rows of dust-covered canning jars sat undisturbed on stone shelves set into three of the walls, side-by-side with wax-sealed tin canisters that held dry foodstuffs. Saul retrieved flour, natron, salt, dried beans, and moringa leaves from the tins. He picked up a jar of canned sandfruit and smiled briefly. His father used to joke that more fruit ended up in Saul's belly than in the bucket when he was sent out to pick sandfruit from the vine. An old woven blanket sagged in the corner. After a pause, he picked that up as well.
His loot cradled in his duster, he climbed back up the ladder. He set the tins and jar down on a rickety table in the front room. The black filly stood in the middle of the room, her legs splayed, stock-still. Her head was down between her forelegs, and she shivered despite the damp heat. He walked cautiously up to her and threw the blanket over her back, rubbing her down. She leaned into the rough blanket as he wiped the water off of her. Her legs trembled like she had the ague.
"Hush, girl, hush," he whispered. "We're fine for now. The storm kept us safe." He ran his callused hand over her forelock and chuckled a little sadly. "You're the first girl I ever brought home--my ma expected me to give her grandchildren but somehow that just didn't work out." Saul looked around the abandoned house. "This is no fit place for young 'uns, and I reckon I'm no fit provider."
The black filly pushed her head against his shoulder. He sighed. "After my kin were killed, I didn't cotton much to other folks. Horses were all that was left for me." Saul looked at her. "I don't think any ranch owner would want me working with their khel now�so all I have is you."
She backed away from him warily. She was still shaking, and blood welled around her tainted silver horseshoes, but she kept stepping. He froze. If she spooked in such a small area, she'd surely harm herself, maybe even break her legs. "As a friend," he tried. She cast nervous glances to her sides, like she was looking for a wall to put her back against and make a stand. "An�acquaintance?" he ventured, easing forward. She didn't bolt.
Saul slowly reached his hand out. She snorted. She looked like she was tuckered out but making a show of strength to fool him. He eased forward. "Now, look at me," he said. "I'm talking to a horse. Don't that make me look a fool?" The filly reared her head. "To a horse that can come and go as she pleases, of course," he added. "But having something�someone," he amended quickly, "around to keep my mind off old sorrows surely would be nice."
She kept her eyes straight on him, but her ears began to swivel forward cautiously, and she let him get close enough to run his hand over her mane. He pulled his hand back; a couple of long, black hairs clung to his palm. He looked at the filly, worried. "Just the strain she's under," he muttered to himself. She tossed her mane, watching him warily as he backed towards the kitchen.
He gazed around for a while, snared in recollections of his mother bustling to fix dinner. He could recall the smell of her homemade bread and sandfruit butter like it was yesterday. He drew in his breath, only to cough on the smell of dust and mildew. The potbellied stove in the corner looked like some enterprising wanderer had tried to take it with him. The stovepipe hung awry, missing a few sections, and the fire door gaped off its hinges. The clawed feet tilted sideways, angling the whole contraption unnaturally, but it would do to fix some grub.
Saul went outside to fetch the earthen pan set to catch water under the pump. The torrent of rain, now eased to a trickle, had washed the bowl clean, though sand spat back from the ground clung to its sides. When he bent his head to step through the back doorway, he heard the scuffle of the filly's hooves against the hard-packed dirt floor as she settled down for the night. Set at ease, he went about making bean and moringa stew in his pan to accompany the desert bread he griddled on the crooked stovetop. Once his belly was full, he followed her into restless slumber.