Igms issue 4, p.10
IGMS Issue 4, page 10
"What do you want me to do?"
"Wait till I knock him down, then come running." Garret eased over the top of the fence and opened a loop. His shoulder throbbed and he thought about taking a soak, but quickly abandoned the idea. The time was now or never. Squinting in the noonday glare, he swung the rope over his head. The stud wheeled, too late to avoid the noose around his front legs. Garret wrapped the free end of the rope behind his back as the stud pitched forward.
"Come on, Shorty!"
"What do I do?" Fear pushed Shorty's voice high.
"Jump on his shoulder and put the blanket over his eyes," Garret shouted as the horse thrashed. "Hurry."
"But . . ."
"Just sit on the son of bitch!"
Shorty jumped into the pen, nearly tripping in his haste. He fell on top of the thrashing animal and wrapped the dirty green blanket around his head.
"Now what?" Shorty gasped.
"Hold him down." Garret worked his way down the riata, pulled the short rope from under his belt and tied it around the stud's front feet. Satisfied the hobbles would hold, he limped across the pen and untied the gate. The rest of the herd tore out. Brown dust settled around them as he put the gnarled poles back in place. "Keep that blanket on him, okay?"
"All right," Garret said, "let him up."
The horse lumbered to his feet, stumbled with the hobbles, then stood trembling as Garret laid a matted pad across his back. Blind under the blanket, he pulled back as the saddle lit behind his withers. Fast as he dared, Garret threaded the cinch, then carefully worked the stiff hackamore under the blanket. The stud fought, but Shorty held tight. Nearly done, Garret pulled up on the latigo until the cinch was so tight he could barely squeeze two fingers between it and the stud's ribs. Quietly, he untied the hobbles.
He took a moment to gather himself, then grabbed the saddle horn. With his free hand, he turned the stirrup toward him and eased his toe inside. Soft as a falling leaf, Garret swung into the saddle. The horse bunched under him, back arched high and ready to blow. Shorty looked up.
"You sure about this?"
Garret gathered the reins in his hand, and nodded. Shorty pulled the blanket off and stepped back.
For one long, merciless second, the moon-eyed stud did nothing.
Then, he exploded.
Garret sat a whirlwind, an avalanche, a stick of blasting powder. Every jump struck like a sledge hammer. He tried to pull the stud's head around, but the horse was too strong. Nose nearly to the ground, the palomino kicked high. Garret felt himself falling forward and grabbed the saddle horn. His shoulder screamed in agony as they lit and jumped again. Shorty ducked aside as the horse struck the gate.
Wood splintered as they broke through. Gritting his teeth, Garret pulled the animal toward the canyon wall. Up the rocky hill they raced, loose scree flying out behind. Up and up until it felt like they would topple backwards, the moon-eyed stud ran, desperate to shake the tormentor off his back. Garret pulled him around, and they rushed headlong back to the canyon floor.
Along the narrow creek they charged, horse and man, neither ready to quit. The stud jumped the marshy bank and plowed through the willows. Whip-thin branches snapped at Garret's face as they broke out onto the wide flats. Far in the distance the clouded pass beckoned. As if he sensed his own freedom lay past the distant mountains, the horse laid his ears back and stretched out toward it. It would be so easy to let him run and all else be damned. He'd done it.
He had, hadn't he? The horse was beat, he could tell it. But, that didn't seem to matter now. Instead of feeling elation, he felt hollow inside, like the stove back at the Antler, full of cold ash and smoke. Breaking the stud didn't change a thing. He was here for a reason, all right, but besting the horse that had shaded him wasn't it. Beneath him, the animal staggered, winded from running. Garret let him slow, his mind clear as the sky above him, stretching out for the answer that had missed him so long. The thought was slow in coming, but when it did, it struck like a charging bull.
This wasn't Hell. It was a school house, a place to learn the things he should have picked up when he was alive, but hadn't. He'd learned a hard lesson today when he admitted he couldn't catch the horse alone. It had cost him his pride to ask Shorty for help, but the little drunkard had been enough of a friend not to throw it back in his face. Now, Garret realized, smiling to himself, it was time to pay back the favor. He gathered up the reins and pulled back.
"Whoa, you piss-eyed bastard!"
Garret hauled on the reins until the exhausted horse's nose brushed his right knee. Stumbling, they came to a stop. Before the winded animal could try him again, he spun him in tight circles until both were dizzy.
"I've never seen the like -- you did it." Shorty jogged down the canyon, his cheeks red as his nose. "I thought he had you for sure."
"So did I." Garret spun the horse once more, then stepped out of the saddle. His legs nearly collapsed as he hit the ground. Shorty hurried toward him and he gratefully passed him the reins.
"That was quite a ride." Shorty gripped the reins beneath the stud's jaw, keeping well clear of the front feet. The grin on his face faded. "Reckon this means you'll be heading for that pass, now."
"No." Garret rubbed his shoulder. "I ain't going anywhere. You are."
Pale as the winter sky, Shorty stared at him. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do. This ain't Hell. It's just someplace to get past on the way out." Garret snugged the cinch a little tighter, the leather slick with dirty white foam, then nodded at the saddle. "Get on and head him toward that pass. He'll do the rest."
"I . . . I can't." Shorty gasped for air. "I'm no bronc stomper."
"You don't have to be. That horse wants to go as bad as you do." Garret crowded the smaller man toward the stirrup. "You said it yourself. Not many men get a second chance to prove themselves. Well, here's yours."
"But . . ."
"Damn it, Shorty, plant your ass in that saddle before I change my mind."
The tired horse staggered as Shorty lumbered into the saddle. Fear glazed his eyes as Garret handed him the reins. "What about you? What are you going to do?"
"Right now, I'm going to soak the ache out of this shoulder." Garret eased away from the stud's neck. "Good luck, Shorty. I'll see you on the other side." Before either man could say more, he swatted the horse on the rump. The animal bunched, then took off. Shorty clung low to the stud's neck, awkward as a monkey on a pony. Garret stood a long time until both horse and rider vanished over the horizon, nothing left but the dust drifting on the wind. Body aching but his spirit young again, he trudged back to the hot springs, stripped down to his hide, and eased into the welcoming water.
Slowly, day after day, the world around him changed, winter drifting into spring.
Ice turned to mud, pale green shoots peeking out from beneath clumps of sagebrush and last year's grass. Garret could taste the change in the air, an endless, ageless scent so old it needed no name.
It tasted like hope.
For days after Shorty left, he stood on the ridge, watching for him. But, as time wore on, he went less and less, convinced at last the stocky little man had made it. He smiled at the thought of Shorty perched high on the palomino's back as they thundered through the Pearly Gates. The aches in his body healed slowly, the hot-spring tonic for his bones, and gradually his strength returned. He repaired his corral, and at night sat by the kitchen stove, rolling smokes while he braided a new hackamore. Shorty's bottle sat on top of the bar, untouched, the cork stuffed tight.
He watched the horses, too. The mares had started to drop their foals, all spindly legs and bristle tails as they pranced behind their mothers. One in particular caught his eye, a white horse-colt with one blue eye. Young as he was, the colt stood head high and proud, and Garret could tell he was going to be a handful.
But then, he wouldn't have it any other way.
A Young Man with Prospects
Artwork by Julie Dillon
* * *
"Do you know what I did today, Alessandra?"
"No, Mother." Fourteen-year-old Alessandra set her book bag on the floor by the front door and walked past her mother to the sink, where she poured herself a glass of water.
"Got the electricity turned back on?"
"The elves would not speak to me," said Mother. It had once been funny, this game that electricity came from elves. But it wasn't funny now, in the sweltering Adriatic summer, with no refrigeration for the food, no air-conditioning, and no vids to distract her from the heat.
"Then I don't know what you did, Mother."
"I changed our lives," said Mother. "I created a future for us."
Alessandra froze in place and uttered a silent prayer. She had long since given up hope that any of her prayers would be answered, but she figured each unanswered prayer would add to the list of grievances she would take up with God, should the occasion arise.
"What future is that, Mother?"
Mother could hardly contain herself. "We are going to be colonists."
Alessandra sighed with relief. She had heard all about the Dispersal Project in school. Now that the Formics had been destroyed, the idea was for humans to colonize all their former worlds, so that humanity's fate would not be tied to that of a single planet. But the requirements for colonists were strict. There was no chance that an unstable, irresponsible -- no, pardon me, I meant "feckless and fay" -- person like Mother would be accepted.
"Well, Mother, that's wonderful."
"You don't sound excited."
"It takes a long time for an application to be approved. Why would they take us? What do we know how to do?"
"You're such a pessimist, Alessandra. You'll have no future if you must frown at every new thing." Mother danced around her, holding a fluttering piece of paper in front of her. "I put in our application months ago, darling Alessandra. Today I got word that we have been accepted!"
"You kept a secret for all this time?"
"I can keep secrets," said Mother. "I have all kinds of secrets. But this is no secret, this piece of paper says that we will journey to a new world, and on that new world you will not be part of a persecuted surplus, you will be needed, all your talents and charms will be noticed and admired."
All her talents and charms. At the coleggio, no one seemed to notice them. She was merely another gawky girl, all arms and legs, who sat in the back and did her work and made no waves. Only Mother thought of Alessandra as some extraordinary, magical creature.
"Mother, may I read that paper?" asked Alessandra.
"Why, do you doubt me?" Mother danced away with the letter.
Alessandra was too hot and tired to play. She did not chase after her. "Of course I doubt you."
"You are no fun today, Alessandra."
"Even if it's true, it's a horrible idea. You should have asked me. Do you know what colonists' lives will be like? Sweating in the fields as farmers."
"Don't be silly," said Mother. "They have machines for that."
"And they're not sure we can eat any of the native vegetation. When the Formics first attacked Earth, they simply destroyed all the vegetation in the part of China where they landed. They had no intention of eating anything that grew here naturally. We don't know if our plants can grow on their planets. All the colonists might die."
"The survivors of the fleet that defeated the Formics will already have those problems resolved by the time we get there."
"Mother," said Alessandra patiently. "I don't want to go."
"That's because you have been convinced by the dead souls at the school that you are an ordinary child. But you are not. You are magical. You must get away from this world of dust and misery and go to a land that is green and filled with ancient powers. We will live in the caves of the dead ogres and go out to harvest the fields that once were theirs! And in the cool evening, with sweet green breezes fluttering your skirts, you will dance with young men who gasp at your beauty and grace!"
"And where will we find young men like that?"
"You'll see," said Mother. Then she sang it: "You shall see! You shall see! A fine young man with prospects will give his heart to you."
Finally the paper fluttered close enough for Alessandra to snatch it out of Mother's hands. She read it, with Mother bending down to hover just behind the paper, smiling her fairy smile. It was real. Dorabella Toscano (29) and daughter Alessandra Toscano (14), accepted into Colony I.
"Obviously there's no sort of psychological screening after all," said Alessandra.
"You try to hurt me but I will not be hurt. Mother knows what is best for you. You shall not make the mistakes that I have made."
"No, but I'll pay for them," said Alessandra.
"Think, my darling, beautiful, brilliant, graceful, kind, generous, and poutful girl, think of this: What do you have to look forward to here in Monopoli, Italia, living in a flat in the unfashionable end of Via Luigi Indelli?"
"There is no fashionable end of Luigi Indelli."
"You make my point for me."
"Mother, I don't dream of marrying a prince and riding off into the sunset."
"That's a good thing, my darling, because there are no princes -- only men and animals who pretend to be men. I married one of the latter but he at least provided you with the genes for those amazing cheekbones, that dazzling smile. Your father had very good teeth."
"If only he had been a more attentive bicyclist."
"It was not his fault, dear."
"The streetcars run on tracks, Mother. You don't get hit if you stay out from between the tracks."
"Your father was not a genius but fortunately I am, and therefore you have the blood of the fairies in you."
"Who knew that fairies sweat so much?" Alessandra pulled one of Mother's dripping locks of hair away from her face. "Oh, Mother, we won't do well in a colony. Please don't do this."
"The voyage takes forty years -- I went next door and looked it up on the net."
"Did you ask them this time?"
"Of course I did, they lock their windows now. They were thrilled to hear we were going to be colonists."
"I have no doubt they were."
"But because of magic, to us it will be only two years."
"Because of the relativistic effects of near-lightspeed travel."
"Such a genius, my daughter is. And even those two years we can sleep through, so we won't even age."
"It will be as if our bodies slept a week, and we wake up forty years away."
"And everyone we know on Earth will be forty years older than we are."
"And mostly dead," sang Mother. "Including my hideous hag of a mother, who disowned me when I married the man I loved, and who therefore will never get her hands on my darling daughter." The melody to this refrain was always cheery-sounding. Alessandra had never met her grandmother. Now, though, it occurred to her that maybe a grandmother could get her out of joining a colony.
"I'm not going, Mother."
"You are a minor child and you will go where I go, tra-la."
"You are a madwoman and I will sue for emancipation rather than go, tra-lee."
"You will think about it first because I am going whether you go or not and if you think your life with me is hard you should see what it's like without me."
"Yes, I should," said Alessandra. "Let me meet my grandmother." Mother's glare was immediate, but Alessandra plowed ahead. "Let me live with her. You go with the colony."
"But there's no reason for me to go with the colony, my darling. I'm doing this for you. So without you, I will not go."
"Then we're not going. Tell them."
"We are going, and we are thrilled about it."
Might as well get off the merry-go-round; Mother didn't mind endlessly repeating circular arguments, but Alessandra got bored with it. "What lies did you have to tell, to
"I told no lies," said Mother, pretending to be shocked at the accusation. "I only proved my identity. They do all the research, so if they have false information it's their own fault. Do you know why they want us?"
"Do you?" asked Alessandra. "Did they actually tell you?"
"It doesn't take a genius to figure it out, or even a fairy," said Mother "They want us because we are both of child-bearing age."
Alessandra groaned in disgust, but Mother was preening in front of an imaginary full-length mirror.
"I am still young," said Mother, "and you are just flowering into womanhood. They have men from the fleet there, young men who have never married. They will be waiting eagerly for us to arrive. So I will mate with a very eager old man of sixty and bear him babies and then he will die. I'm used to that. But you -- you will be a prize for a young man to marry. You will be a treasure."
"My uterus will, you mean," said Alessandra. "You're right, that's exactly what they're thinking. I bet they took practically any healthy female who applied."
"We fairies are always healthy."
It was true enough -- Alessandra had no memory of ever being sick, except for food poisoning that time when Mother insisted they would eat supper from a street vendor's cart at the end of a very hot day.
"So they're sending a herd of women, like cows."
"You're only a cow if you choose to be," said Mother. "The only question I have to decide now is whether we want to sleep through the voyage and wake up just before landing, or stay awake for the two years, receiving training and acquiring skills so we're ready to be productive in the first wave of colonists."
Alessandra was impressed. "You actually read the documentation?"
"This is the most important decision of our lives, my darling Alessa. I am being extraordinarily careful."
"If only you had read the bills from the power company."
"They were not interesting. They only spoke of our poverty. Now I see that God was preparing us for a world without air-conditioning and vids and nets. A world of nature. We were born for nature, we elvish folk. You will come to the dance and with your fairy grace you will charm the son of the king, and the king's son will dance with you until he is so in love his heart will break for you. Then it will be for you to decide if he's the one for you."
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