Monday, February 12, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal Chapter 6

They were in badlands now. Nothing was green. Dazzling shapes of buff and orange twisted and fell away and rose up again around them, almost like flames of stone. Rarely it was possible to distinguish the dried of remains of some plant that had started in a long-ago rainy season. Barley and Rye plodded along without interest in their surroundings. Except that the neat little black mare, Crossroads, was coming into season. Even though they were geldings, the Belgians paid attention to that. When the wagon stopped for something -- maybe to clear debris from the trail or take a look around from a high place -- though it was hard to tell much in such a labyrinth -- Crossroads would get herself around to where she could scratch her itchy hindquarters against the back corners of the wagon, making it jounce on its springs. Barley and Rye bent their heads around and stared at her. They blew out the dust in their nostrils.

Partly because of the mare’s pesky behavior, Demeter decided she would take up the position of outrigger scout. Anyway, Cate -- wanting to talk to Toby -- stuck around too close. After Demeter rode off on the mare, Cate and Toby sat driving shoulder to shoulder on the springwagon seat, not talking much now, but clearly gaining strength from each other. The people were as tired as the horses but it was their human minds that were the danger -- suggesting outcomes no one wanted.

One seemingly lucky day, miles out from the trail, Demeter found a kind of bowl shape in the stone where rainwater surprisingly lingered as a pond. She took the saddle and bridle off Crossroads, knowing that the horses felt part of the little company now and would not stray from it. It was good to let the horse graze on green grass and she lay back against the saddle listening to the sounds. She dozed a bit.

Suddenly there was a scream like a panther. But that wasn’t the right animal -- it was a horse -- a black stallion screaming and rearing at the top of a ridge. He ran, silhouetted against the darkening sky, and his flying mane and tail writhed in the wind like fire. For a moment she thought, hoped, it was a nightmare, but the horse’s hooves came pounding and now Crossroads sent her own scream into the shimmering air. The small meadow of grass that had seemed a protected place had become a trap.

The stallion put his head down parallel to the ground, impossibly, so that he looked unlike a horse, snaking forward with ears back until he was biting at the mare’s heels. His white teeth were bared and his eyes were rimmed with white. Demeter could hear his teeth clacking. He was trying to sever the mare’s tendons so she couldn’t run away, but she kicked out at him. THUMP -- she connected but the big male horse hardly seemed to notice.

They were both running hard now, with the male passing and then cutting back again. He closed in on her to bite her round hindquarters hard enough to make blood blossom red in the setting sun. She reared and lashed, landing both hind hooves on his broad chest, strong enough to send him off course. But then he curved back around to inflict more tearing bites on her withers. He grabbed for her neck.

But she was dancing, running, arching, rearing, doubling-back, bowing, in a dance so complicated that the next step could not be predicted. The stallion put his head down again and drove her, darting in again and again from side-to-side. The confrontation went on and on until both horses were panting, their nostrils flared and their mouths open. Veins stood out on their sweated sides.

Crossroads could bear it no longer. She stood, quivering. Surcease -- for that’s the horse it was -- stopped, too, watched her for a moment, and then approached. Whickering softly, no longer biting, he rubbed his mouth the length of her neck and back. He embraced her neck with his own thick arching neck and they rubbed together. Finally she stood with her hind legs apart, braced and open. He reared onto her back and entered.

Laughter rang across the meadow. Mort Lethe stood on the ridge with his fists on his hips, his long coat tail flapping. He was as aroused and triumphant as if it were he who had mounted the mare.

“If I had a rifle, I’d finish you off!” shouted Demeter.

“Wrong kind of harvest for you, my dear! Stick to what you know!”

“Where’s my daughter?”

The only answer was the sound of the stallion driving Crossroads out of the grassy valley and the echo of laughter as the black clad man disappeared behind the ridge.

It was dark. She was alone. She was outraged. Somehow she had to find her way back to Cate and Toby. Once she found the trail again, she stumbled along, barely able to tell the hard-packed dirt from the grazed-down dry grass along it. The moon rose as she walked but the camp was not where she expected it.

Behind her she heard horses running and thought it was Toby and Cate with the team. She stood still in the road and was nearly run-down as half a dozen horses pounded past her. The men on them were dark, even their faces were dark as though they were masked or painted or coal miners. Coal miners. Now she began to run, though it meant occasionally falling.

Ahead she heard firing and came around a corner just in time to see the men rushing down on the camp she had thought would mean safety. Barley and Rye, unused to attack, were rearing and striking out with their front feet. Cate jumped onto Barley’s back, grabbing at the harness, while Toby fired a rifle at the men. He was not a warrior and his marksmanship was not good. The men grabbed Barley’s bridle and struck his rear end hard with their rifles while Cate whipped at them with a rope she had seized. Where was her pistol? The men cut Barley loose.

Where was Demeter’s pistol? In the pocket of her canvas apron, then in her hand and firing before she even thought. One man was struck in the shoulder. Another screamed and grabbed his leg.

But then the attackers turned on the horses, firing until Rye dropped alongside the wagon. They threw ropes onto the wagon tongue and towed it crazily down the trail, Rye’s body dragging, so that it flailed against trees and rocks. The wagon flew to pieces and its load scattering everywhere. She couldn’t see Toby.

Demeter heard Cate scream far ahead and Barley scream -- then a great crash and the receding scramble of disordered men on horseback. She ran forward with her empty pistol -- extra cartridges had been in her saddlebag on the mare -- and realized that Toby was running ahead of her. She doubled back to the campfire and and seized a burning branch for light. There was a cliff where the trail turned, but they had forced Barley to go over it, Cate on his back.

Toby scrambled down over the twenty foot fall of rock. The big Belgian horse was groaning, mortally hurt, two legs broken and a rib driven into his great lungs, now filling with blood.

Cate lay separately, a dark heap. She did not move and made no sound. Toby stooped over her while Demeter found a way down to them. “Don’t straighten her until we know what’s broken,” said Demeter.

“Yes.” His voice was hoarse, rough with worry.

They stayed there with her until daylight, listening to her breath go in and out -- stop for a moment -- then go in and out. The horse, not far away, groaned and gurgled until the first light in the sky -- then went quiet. Birds began to sing and then coyotes yammered.

“Do you know who they were?” asked Toby once.

“Yes.” She said no more and Toby didn’t ask anymore.

When the daylight came, they saw that the trail turned down the face of the bluff sideways but then came back below itself hairpin turns so that if they made a litter, they might be able to carry Cate back to the remains of the camp. It became lighter and they looked farther, to the edge of a patch of sagebrush. There stood Crossroads, saddled and bridled, tied to a bush. The mare stamped her feet.

“Don’t you stamp your feet at me, you doxie!” Demeter was enraged, even though they really needed the mare -- maybe BECAUSE they needed her.

Toby looked at her, unable to decipher what was happening. She told him, “Mort Lethe brought the horse back just to taunt me. He’s the man who has my daughter and now he knows we’re coming to get her back. He’s showing he doesn’t care.”

Toby stared at her a few more moments. Finally he said, “With the horse we can make a travois.” A careful search with gentle fingers had convinced them that Cate had a blow to the head, one arm broken in two places, and a broken leg. They couldn’t tell much more without talking to her, but she did not regain consci ousness. They had straightened her and made splints. “I’ll go back to camp. I think there must be a spring nearby,” said Toby. The sun was already growing warm. “My home village is not so far now.”

Badlands stretched out ahead of them. The bees, whose hives had been smashed, finally warmed enough to rise into the air, swarming in a twisting flight like glittering smoke. They would have to stay here. Demeter was already planning how she would make a cart to push, but there would only be room for her box and a few other things. Not the water barrels, which were smashed anyway.


Cowtown Pattie said...

I am really enjoying myself!

I am going to print it all out, so I can re-read in bed.

Delicious stuff, Mary!

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Glad you like it, Pattie. It's great fun to write!

Prairie Mary