He squinted into the distance. Even from the added height of being on horseback the flat line of the plain merged, featureless, with the mauve blur, like a distant ribbon that seeped upwards into the giant creases of the Rockies. Their peaks were like teeth on a broken saw poking into puffed clouds.
No mark or track to follow, just the line to Bear Ridge at the base of The Witches’ Hats, as the three close peaks were called. There was still no sign of the township he was heading toward. His horse stood quietly, head down and breathing heavily. The man stood in his stirrups. He guessed this was a make-or-break ride now. His horse was already struggling.
“Well, Grey, looks like I’ll be walking too”.
He unhooked his right toe from the stirrup and eased his leg up and over, slowing as the cramping pain shot from his buttock, through thigh and agonised his calf. He forced himself to complete the movement off the horse, unhooked his left foot and it hit the ground just after his right. Just as the pain shot up and down his leg again, and stayed. Right hand clung onto the pommel and his left slapped and grabbed the leather of the rifle’s holster strapped to the saddle. He leaned forward, off balance, and pushed his head against the stock of the Winchester and his hat knocked backwards, saved from flying off by the cord that dragged into his Adam’s apple. The horse juggled its feet sideways a couple of steps at the unexpected movement of its rider and the man slipped after it. His leg muscle was still in spasm and all he could do was be dragged briefly. The horse centred and stood still.
“Shit!” He grimaced. The iron-rod pain still rammed into his calf. His boot did not allow much movement as he pushed down into his toes and bent his knee; and up again to relieve himself of the spasm. A strange little dance it would seem, from a distance, as he hobbled beside his horse.
While the man concentrated on his pain the horse took a few steps away from the eccentric circles, reins dangling like ribbons, in search of a blade or two of grass. It had run out several miles ago. The ground had dried and hardened as they passed and cracked into patches of sand. The horse, Grey, was annoyed, tired and hungry. He snorted into the ground and kicked at it. The breeze, frequently gentle, now gusted a little and felt chilled. He raised his head and opened his nostrils to the moving air. Lungs heaved in the colder air and he felt the moisture it carried soften his parched membranes. Lifting his head higher he shook it into the new gust, bared his teeth at its increasing chill, tasted the water in that breeze and walked towards where he knew he could get a drink at least, maybe food.
As he walked, looking into the distance, at the blur of purple and mauve, he could also see a clump of green and stabs of black lifting up, circling and waving back down into the greenery. A green strip, just a head-lengths wide, slightly to the side, at the bottom of where the three points stuck up like pricked ears. Despite the dampness in the air he thought he could smell water and it drew him, as needs always do. His amble, head swaying and sniffling at the ground had wound up to slow walk. As his senses took over his head pushed onwards and with ears pricked forward his gait increased. Muscles began to loosen, forget they were tired and weak and his hooves picked up as he moved at a trot to hidden water he knew was there.
With girth still tight, rifle barrel still tapping on his shoulder and the roll-pack bouncing as always on the back, near his haunches, he moved lighter than previously, riderless . It was a few miles, worth the effort to see the green-mash assume tree proportions and shapes. As he closed on the trees the shrubs poked into view via the drop of the ground into the gulley. And there it lay, whispering and glittering in the last of the sun, the slow, shallow river. The water was so cold but clear and sweet as he thrust his mouth into it. A few strides and he was cooling fetlocks, soothing the overheated muscles. Thirst slaked, muscles relaxed again, Grey moved back onto the sloping, grass edged bank.
The horse ambled along the river bank for a short distance ripping at the grass and lashing the leaves off the bushes tucked under the trees. Then back towards the sloping runnel by which he had reached the river. He strolled up the scree of the slope, snaffling leaves from the bushes as he passed with his fat lips sucking them in and a quick gnash of teeth before swallowing. At the top he stopped. Head swinging left and right, reins leaving dusty scythe marks in the top layer of dust, he looked for the man. There he stood, shuffling, mooching and nibbling at the bushes, waiting. A few minutes later he walked to the water to have another drink and relieve himself.
The sun slipped down over the flat horizon pulling the dusk into dark. The moon reasserting itself with its cream and shadowed skin gave view over that flat plain he had ambled across two hours earlier. Grey caught a scent in the air. The wind, colder as the sun got hidden, had shifted direction. He stood with his rump against the cold draughts, tail occasionally twitching in annoyance at the sputtering gusts. He raised his head, felt his main ruffled by another surge of cold air. Turning his big neck and head into the wind he pricked his ears and took in a rush of air and smells.
The strap, cinched round his chest eased as he moved. He realised the warm patch on his back was from the blanket with its saddle on top. The weight was minimal without his rider but he missed the warmth from the legs and their confidence. And he had scented the man, the rider, with that smell that was almost part of himself for all the distance and time they had moved together. He stood, waiting. Listening now as the scent grew with the gusts and he looked into the flat shadowland from where he heard footsteps between the pleating winds. The two-note whistle sprang from the darkness and his ears twitched to focus. Grey snuffled a greeting and turned his head back so the wind could flow from stern to front again. Twitched his tail, impatiently this time. All the time watching for his rider to appear.
“Grey. Grey. Hi boy”. The horse waited. As the man’s hand caught hold of the bridle and fingers slipped between it and his cheek he jerked his head a little. Horse’s head turned and bumped into the man’s. Heads stayed leaning against each other for some seconds, the man leaned heavily, briefly, and then pulled back shoulders and head for one last effort.
“I was going to walk with you, not follow on your tracks. Thank God it was a straight line and you left me a track to follow. Where to now? Where’s that water?” He turned the horses head with his hand, fingers still curled tightly into the leather of the bridle, towards the sound of the river. The horse allowed the movement of bit to pull his head and neck round and shuffled his back-end into alignment. Grey moved forward slowly and countered the weight of the man dragging slightly on his neck and shoulders.
Together they walked the brief distance to and down the sloping track to the lapping water-side . The man conscientiously looped and hitched the reins to a nibbled branch and knelt to the ripples. Cupping his hands, scooping up water and sucking in what he could before it fell away through his fingers. He clapped soaking fingers to his cheeks and rubbed the damp round his eyes. The actions were repeated to clear some of the dust and tiredness from his face.
The moon was higher and brighter now. Around him the man could make out the bushes and trees, albeit as part silhouette or more nebulous black against the dark itself. He was too tired to do anything else, he thought. His leg hurt from the walking, his feet hurt from the walking, just about everything ached and pinched when he moved. And strictly speaking he was just too tired to think. The man pushed himself upright and walked the few paces to the horse, at it’s side he straightened his stoop and leaned back to ease a stiff spine. He breathed in the heavy smell of the horse and bent, leant a shoulder on its flank as he fumbled then moved lower to un-hook the strap and buckle. Unstrapped, he dragged the saddle off the horse’s back and let it collapse onto the ground. Took off the blanket and moved it, with the saddle, to the other side of the bush and laid them down in a space big enough for for the blanket. He untied his roll and waved it open like a table cloth onto the ground. Almost in a trance he went back to his horse and checked the reins were securely tied to a stronger branch.
“I’m done, Grey. Stay here, dammit. No more running or even walking, not without me on board!” He gave a friendly smack on the chestnut’s neck and rubbed the rubbery nose. With a brief backward wave the man walked in a tired haze to his spot and dropped onto it. There was just enough energy left to pull some blanket over his back and shoulders. His temple touched the cool leather of the saddle but it did not wake him.
Grey reached for and ripped at the nearby leaves, shuffled feet and straightened his bulk into a neutral, comfortable, position. His stomach gurgled and he felt the subtle rhythms in his intestines as he relaxed and the wind gushed out from his rear. He twitched his tail and settled, waiting patiently for sleep to lock in or the start of another day.
related: Abbott’s Road, Silver Spur