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Igms issue 4, p.9

IGMS Issue 4, page 9

 

IGMS Issue 4
 


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  His saddle lay on the top rail. A bridle with a rawhide hackamore hung off the horn. Garret knew every scuff on the old saddle, the curve of the high cantle as familiar as snow on a winter's day. An oiled riata, coiled tight, was tied to the right pommel. The rope mocked him, daring him to throw a loop.

  "Think we should have another go at it, old son?"

  The horse spun away. Bits of dirt and frozen manure clattered against the rails as. the stud raced around the pen, defiant as the day he died. Garret's shoulder ached as started to untie the riata, his left arm all but worthless. He let the coils drop against the fender, loud as a judge's gavel. Shaking as much from shame as the icy wind, John Garret wandered back to the Antler.

  "Morning, John." Shorty leaned on the bar and scratched his strawberry nose. "Ever think Hell would be like this?"

  "You asked me that yesterday, Shorty."

  "I did?"

  "You've asked me the same damn question every morning since I got here."

  "Oh." Shorty flushed. "Well, I was just trying to be sociable." The squat man shuffled into the kitchen. Garret heard him stuff kindling into the cookstove until flames whuffed inside the fire-box. He almost felt ashamed at having hurt Shorty's feelings. Anxious to be away, he buttoned his coat and stepped outside.

  The wind was colder today, raw as an open sore. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and hurried toward the coral. The moon-eyed stud watched him, head high. Garret watched the horse too. Something in the way the animal moved, as if he danced a paper's width above the ground, held his eye. People used to say he was fearless when it came to horses, but they were wrong. He was afraid of every bronc he'd thrown a saddle on. No, he decided, afraid wasn't the right word. Respectful. A horse had too many ways to hurt a man if he let them, but he'd never been around an animal so packed full of hate as this one. Without quite knowing why, Garret understood he had to break him or he'd wind up as empty and craving as Shorty. He tested his left shoulder. It hurt, but not so much to keep him from trying.

  "All right, old son." Garret untied the riata, made a loop and rolled the twists out. The rope felt like an extension of his arm, as if he'd been born to throw it. He stepped inside, twirling it slow and easy above his head. "Let's you and me try this again."

  The stud snorted, ice-white breath shooting out his nostrils as Garret eased toward the snub post set in the center of the pen. Around and around, the rope spun faster. He gauged the throw, his wrist flicking in time with the animal's lope. On the next pass, he let fly. The loop hung in the air, and then, snake fast, settled over the stud's head. Garret put his back to the snub-post and took up the slack.

  The stud reared as Garret dallied around the post. Without warning, the animal turned and ran down the rope. Garret dodged, but stumbled to the ground. Desperate to avoid the knife-sharp hooves, he rolled against the bottom rail.

  Behind him, the stud lunged against the maddening noose as the coils tightened around the post. Another hard yank and the leather strands broke. Free again, the stud leapt at the top rail. Wood splintered under his weight as the top two poles sagged, then snapped. The broken riata still around his neck, he bolted across the narrow creek south of town into the desert beyond.

  The cookstove crackled, so hot it seemed ready to melt if Shorty stuffed one more stick inside. The little man drug up a spindly green chair and set it next to his rocker. Garret eased into the chair while Shorty rounded up his bottle and two glasses. He poured two fingers in each, then gave one to Garret.

  "It's probably for the best." Shorty dropped into the rocker.

  "What the Hell are you talking about?"

  "That horse getting away. From where I'm looking, you're better off. That son of a bitch was out to kill you."

  "I'm already dead."

  "Maybe so, but what happens if you get killed again? Could be the next place is worse than this one." Shorty tossed off his drink. "Yes sir, a damn site worse."

  Garret snorted, unconvinced, and took a drink. Cheap sour mash washed down his throat, the oily aftertaste strong enough to curl his tongue, but the fire went out before it hit his belly. He had a strange feeling he could drink the stuff all day and never feel a tilt.

  "Well, John Garret" Shorty topped off both glasses then raised his in salute. "Here's to better days."

  "Better days?" The chair legs skidded out behind him as Garret stood up. "Won't be any better days 'til I get that moon-eyed bastard rounded up."

  "What's that going to prove?" Shorty struggled out of the rocker. "Think it matters a tinker's damn if you ride him? Hell is Hell, and the sooner you get used to it, the better off you'll be."

  "I'll never get used to this." Garret let the door bang shut behind him. His coat lay on top of the bar where he had dropped it. His shoulder ached fiercely as he shrugged into the stiff wool. Behind him, the kitchen door swing open.

  "You have any idea what's out there? I do." Shorty put himself between Garret and the front doors. "You think I didn't try to walk out of this place? I tried for months, but there ain't nowhere to go. Nothing out there but rock and dirt and that god-awful wind. Where will you even look for him?"

  "There's a creek. That means there's grass along it. That stud horse has got to eat."

  "You just ain't getting it. That horse don't have to eat anymore than you or I do. You can track him until the leather wears off your boots, but you ain't never going to catch him. And if you do, he'll just bust out again. He's your torment, John Garret. Hell isn't full of devils with pitchforks and pointy tails. It's just you and me and the snake-eyed horse that laid you out. And the sooner you swallow that fact, the better off we'll all be."

  Garret stared at him. "How'd you die, Shorty?"

  The smaller man looked away. "I took sick."

  "Oh." Garret had a pretty good idea what kind of fever killed Shorty. "I'm sorry to hear that. But I wasn't sick. I got killed. No, that ain't it either. I got beat. That horse broke me in two, and if it takes me the rest of forever, I'm going to pay him back."

  "Then what? So you break the only horse in Hell. You think the devil's going to slap you on the back and turn you loose?"

  "Maybe."

  "And what if he don't?"

  "Well," Garret said softly, "At least I'll know I tried."

  Garret followed the meandering creek northward. The stud had circled back to it, his hoof prints sharp in the dust. The sun rolled close to the far-off mountains, and reluctantly, Garret turned back. Light flickered under the kitchen door when he arrived, Shorty no doubt sitting in his rocker. He hurried up the stairs before the little man realized he was back. The last thing he wanted tonight was company.

  The mattress sagged beneath him as he crawled under the blankets, the pain in his arm spreading with cancerous hunger through his body. It was cold in the little room, ice on the window. No moon shone in Hell, no silvery beams to set the frost alight. A single bright star hung in view, and in Garret's fevered mind it became the stud's pale eye. Even in sleep, the animal plagued him, striking from nightmare to nightmare. He woke long before dawn, impatient for the day.

  His breath hung in front of him as he struggled to button his shirt, then went downstairs. Shorty stood behind the bar, the bottle beside him. He looked like he hadn't bothered going to bed. Garret ignored him and pulled on his coat. The door latch clicked as he turned the knob.

  "You're a damn fool, John."

  "Reckon I am." The door swung open. Cold slammed him as Garret snugged his hat down. "See you around, Shorty."

  He headed north, back to the little creek. Slowly, his blood warmed, and before he had covered a mile sweat pooled between his shoulder blades despite the ice in his toes. Clumps of willows, stripped of all but a few brittle leaves, clacked against each other, loud as dice in a tinhorn's hand. The stud's tracks lay plain in the gray dust. The creek made a sharp bend, and as he stepped around it he stopped and frowned.

  A second set of tracks cut in front of him. Garret bent down and studied the print.
It was neatly rounded with a narrow frog, most likely a mare's foot. Garret smiled to himself. Shorty had been wrong about one thing. They might be the only humans in Hell, but there were damn sure plenty of horses.

  The trail swung away from the creek toward a sagebrush covered flat. Mountains, bare and lifeless, ringed the alkali desert. He stared at the western-most horizon. White clouds rose above a V-shaped pass, sharp as the buckhorns on his old Winchester. If a gate lead out of this place, it lay through that pass. He stroked his mustache. The pass looked close, but for all he knew it might be a week's hike on foot. More determined than ever, he turned back to the trail.

  Garret climbed a low rise, then stopped dead. A dozen horses grazed on the sparse grass, skinny mares and half-grown colts. The moon-eyed stud was with them, pacing on the edge of the herd. He saw Garret and threw his head up. The others saw him too, and as one they thundered up a narrow draw, dust billowing in their wake.

  "Well, well . . ." Garret stared up the draw and smiled. A herd of horses was easier to catch than a single animal, especially in country like this where any sharp bend might hide a trap. High on the steep hillside, the herd fanned out, the stud in the lead. Garret laughed. "Looks like you ain't quite shut of me yet, old son."

  He searched for a place to set his trap. The stream curved up a box canyon lined with outcrops of crumbling red stone, then came to a narrow bowl and stopped. A strange odor hung in the air, the scent of burnt matches and eggs gone bad. More willows choked the creek bottom, and beyond them, a stand of cattails. Garret picked his way around the little marsh and looked down.

  "Well, I'll be damned."

  A shallow pool of copper blue water flickered in the sunlight. Steam rose off it only to freeze against the nearby rocks. A spring gushed out of the hillside. Garret felt the heat, warm as the kitchen back at the Antler and shook his head in wonder. Even in Hell, beauty found its way in.

  "Reckon this ain't getting any corrals built." Garret stretched out his bad arm to loosen it, then started piling stones and brushwood to block the gap. After an hour, he paused to let his aching shoulder rest. Cold wind drove through his bones like a railroad spike while he stared at the steaming pool.

  "Nobody said I had to finish this in one day." Garret wandered toward the hot springs and dangled a hand in the water. It was hot, but not so hot he couldn't stand it. Feeling foolish, he stripped out of his clothes and stood naked in the icy breeze. Before he could change his mind, John Garret stepped into the pool and sighed as he settled into the engulfing warmth. He scooted to a mossy boulder, leaned his back against it and closed his eyes.

  Garret stayed in the pool longer than he expected, the water so seductive he could barely face leaving. Finally, he crawled out and let the wind dry him a moment before he dressed, his shoulder better after the long soak. Feeling more hopeful than he had in ages, he started back to town.

  Days came and went. Every day, Garret worked until he ached, then soaked in the pool. Slowly, his strength returned, the hard work and hot water better than any medicine. He told Shorty about the pool the first night he came back, but the little man only shrugged.

  "I seen it." Shorty poured himself a shot. "Long ways to walk just to take a bath."

  After that, Garret didn't mention what he did. Shorty, for his part, pretended not to care. Some days Garret left early to track the horses and study their habits while he honed his plan. When the corral was finished, he lugged his saddle up the winding trail and stashed it near the make-shift trap, then gathered up his broken riata. He took it inside the Antler's kitchen and pulled up a chair.

  Shorty stared dubiously at the broken rope. "You're going after that damned horse?"

  "Yep." Garret unwound a length of the tight braids, then began splicing a new hondo knot.

  "Got yourself a corral?"

  "Yep."

  "Oh." Shorty reached for his bottle. "You need help catching him?"

  Garret never looked up from his braiding. "Reckon not."

  "Just as well. I got a lot to do tomorrow." Shorty poured a drink, but didn't touch it. "You really think if you break that stud you can just ride on up to St. Peter's gate?"

  "I'm not sure about anything."

  "Ever think you deserve to be here?" Shorty's voice cracked. "Who's to say the Almighty didn't drop you here for a reason."

  Garret stared at the floor. All his life he had been a man to act, not question, and the idea that he had done something so horrendous to strand him here had never crossed his mind. He lay the rope in his lap and looked up. "I done a lot of things in my life. Some of them I'm proud of. Some I'm not. But one way or another, I wouldn't change much."

  "Then you're a lucky man. Most of us never get a second try." Shorty tried to take a drink, but his hand shook so badly he couldn't raise the glass. "You ever love a woman? Love her so much you ached? I did. Funny thing is, she loved me back."

  The coal-oil lamp flickered in Shorty's eyes. "Her name was Eleanor. Long brown hair. Eyes so bright they made the moon jealous. You've never seen a woman so beautiful in all your days."

  "You marry her?" Garret asked. Shorty nodded.

  "We moved out west in the spring of '94. I kept telling her about the black soil and how we were going to raise the biggest barn and the strongest sons in the whole damn country."

  "What happened?"

  "She took off with a traveling preacher a year after we homesteaded. Came in from the field one day to see her sitting in his buckboard. She never even looked back." The tremor in Shorty's hand worsened and whiskey spilled over the top of the glass. "Reckon some women just ain't cut out to be farmer's wives."

  "Did you go after her?"

  "Thought about it. Thought about it hard. But when it came down to tacks, I just couldn't find the nerve. You know, I'd never had so much as a glass of beer before she left me. Don't think I've been sober since." He stood up, the rocker creaking behind him, and headed for the door. "See you in the morning." The kitchen door banged shut behind him. Garret sat as the fire in the cast-iron stove died out, then, feeling empty inside, went back to braiding.

  Morning broke cold and clear. A few bright stars still danced above the horizon as Garret slung the riata over is shoulder, along with a ratty old blanket, and headed out. He spotted horse tracks near the sagebrush meadow, but ignored them until he was certain his trap was set. Aching with cold, he piled brush in front of the trail, a final diversion to haze the animals toward the hot springs and the little corral beside it. As ready as he could be, he returned to where he had found the tracks.

  High overhead a nighthawk trilled. Garret looked up. It was the first time he had heard one since he died, and he took it as a good sign. To the east the little town sat like a broken toy. Far to the west lay the pass, the clouds above it scarlet as the sun crested the horizon. The nighthawk swooped low over the sagebrush and flew toward the distant pass. Garret smiled.

  With luck, he would be heading that way, too.

  He spotted the horses on the ridge, the stud, as always, walking guard along the edge. Garret stayed downwind as he worked his way along the rocky hillside until he stood a hundred yards above them.

  "All right, John Garret," he whispered, "this is it."

  The blanket fell open in his hands. With a whoop, he swung the moth-eaten cloth around his head. Startled, the horses broke downhill.

  Dust streamed behind them. Garret ran as fast as he dared across the uneven ground. If he had been mounted it would have been a wild, headlong dash to the box canyon. On foot, it became a plodding agony. Out of breath, he rounded the last bend just as the horses turned up the box canyon. The moon-eyed stud wheeled around, and for a heartbeat Garret worried he might bolt in the opposite direction. Faster than it seemed an animal could move, the horse spun and chased after the herd.

  Garret rushed toward his trap. The horses milled around the willows, snorting and whinnying to each other. A bay yearling saw him, and stumbled in its haste to get away. Like a flock of birds,
the animals poured inside the little corral. He sprinted the last forty yards, yelling at the top of his lungs to keep them from escaping before he could seal the crude pen.

  "Get in there, you sons of bitches!"

  It was working. Quickly, he crisscrossed juniper logs across the gap while the horses raced around the pen, the thunder of their hooves deafening. Furious at being trapped, the moon-eyed stud laid back his ears and charged the gate. The logs bulged, but held while the stud squealed in rage. Garret lashed the barrier in place, then retrieved his riata.

  So far, luck was on his side. He crawled over the pen, a short length of cotton rope tucked under his belt for hobbles. Mindful of the circling horses, he readied a loop. The riata shot out, not at the stud's neck but his front feet. Caught, the horse crashed to the ground, but before Garret could reach him, jerked loose.

  "Damn it!"

  Garret winced at the pain in his left shoulder, so sharp he thought it had been pulled out of the socket. He coiled the rope, but the thought of another throw seemed beyond him. Round and round the horses raced, the moon-eyed stud keeping to the edge of the pen. Defeat lay bitter on his tongue as he realized he couldn't do it alone. Hurting everywhere, he limped out of the pen and started back to town.

  Shorty looked up as Garret stepped inside the lobby.

  "You catch him?"

  "I got him penned up." Garret took a deep breath. In all his long life he had never begged for help. "I need a hand getting a saddle on him. If you've got the time."

  "You want me to help you?" Shorty's bloodshot eyes brightened, long dormant pride stirring beneath. "Hell's bells, time's all I've got." He grabbed his coat then started toward the door. The bar and the glass of whiskey lay along his path. He paused, then hurried past without taking a drink. Together, they stepped outside.

  Neither spoke during the long walk to the hot springs. Garret almost wished the stud had broken free while he was gone, but the animal stood inside the pen, ears forward, his pale eye watching every movement. Garret picked up the ratty blanket and handed it to Shorty.

 
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