Thursday, March 11, 2010


~*~  *  ~*~
~*~  ~*~  ~*~

The truck skidded on the frost coming down the steepest part of the road, where the rocks cut grey and angular out of the hills on either side. The tyres screamed on the road as the driver swung the wheel over, turning into the skid as there was rarely another car on the road here – particularly at four am in the morning. The massive truck glided slowly in a circle as the tyres failed to grip, the back jack knifing around the cab, until the truck itself began to tip, and then with a crash that shook the ground, the truck turned onto its side. A few moments later, the engine cut out, and apart from the truck's lights continuing to pierce the mist, there was silence.

Three miles away up on the tops, on the winter pastures where the brood mares grazed, Bandit heard the start of the skid. Braced as he often stood, on a high point of the rock where he could see and hear everything as his herd stood below, he turned his head towards the road and his ears pricked forward. It was a man sound. He recognised man sounds, having heard them all his life from the ranch house below, and like all man sounds, he associated it with things that were good. Familiar voices. Oats. Warmth. The safety of the corrals when the grass froze and the mares were weak from cold. Flynn. Flynn came from the ranch house where the man things were, and Flynn was, in Bandit's mind, all knowing and all powerful. When it was time to separate the colts from the herd, Bandit drove back the mares while Flynn penned the colts. When the winter pastures were dry and poor in spring and the mares were heavy with foal, Flynn and Bandit together took the mares south to the warmer, richer pastures for the summer. When winds and blizzards made open ground dangerous, Bandit brought the mares and the foals down from the tops in the certainty that Flynn would have been ahead of him to open the gates. Flynn was the deity of these hills. 

The crash made the mares startle below, several of them jerking up from where they lay on the frosty grass, and several of the foals, six months old now, leggy and shaggy with their thick winter coats, scattered and bounded and paused to look with curiosity. And after the crash came a resounding silence. Bandit stood for a long time, looking out in the direction of the sound. Far away on the wind was the scent of smoke from the south where the house lay in the valley. To the north, elk were moving in the distance by the river. Dawn was hours away. Bandit came down from his peak, speeding into his high, gliding trot as he circled the herd, snaking around Marika, his favourite and the lead mare. Marika lifted her head from grazing to look at him in surprise, then loyally began to walk where he asked, and the other mares swiftly fell in around her as Bandit swept out in wider circles, gathering them together. The foals stuck close to their mothers’ sides, well trained from the day of their birth in how to move with the herd, and Bandit took them west, across the plateaus that led the miles out to the road.

~*~  ~*~  ~*~

Dale was asleep. His bare shoulders were still honey brown from the late Autumn harvest when they had worked up in the hay pastures, shirtless under the Indian summer sun. It had been perfect hay making weather this year. The barns all over the ranch were stuffed full and the hay had been thick and sweet. Awake without being sure why, Flynn ran a palm softly down over Dale's spine, lightly enough not to disturb him. Dale's skin was smooth and warm beneath his touch, and lay like silk over the muscles below. He slept as quietly as he did everything else, still and contained. Whatever he dreamed underneath the dark hair and the closed eyelids, Flynn couldn't catch a glimmer of it. Whatever Dale shared with him was always a deliberate, willing choice, nothing was given away by accident.

And if he fidgeted like this much longer he was going to disturb Dale's rest. Unsure of why he’d woken but past wanting to settle back to sleep, Flynn looked at him for a moment longer, loath to move away or to take his hand from the warmth of Dale's back, then gathered himself and slid quietly out of bed.

The house was silent. Flynn took his clothes downstairs into the kitchen, where a steady warmth came from the still burning range. He dressed in front of it, an eye out on the yard beyond. There would be a hard frost this morning. The mist was already rising from the fields, the ground freezing hard, but above the mist there was still bright moonlight. Plenty of light to see by. Pulling a thick jacket and gloves from the hooks by the door, he dressed warmly, pulled a Stetson down over his ears and went out to the stables.

Several of the yearlings looked curiously at him from their pasture as he passed them, and from the corral, there were several whickers of inquiry to know who was moving around at this odd hour. Flynn pulled a saddle from the racks in the tack room at the end of the stables, hooked a bridle over his shoulder, and walked slowly over the frosty ground to the corral door. This was no time to take the flighty or skittish horses out. Leo, Snickers and Gucci, with their long, delicate legs, were too at risk on slippery grass in the dark. Flynn walked across to Hammer, holding the bridle, and the big, solid gelding stuck his dark head down into the straps willingly, standing still to let Flynn buckle it around him. Flynn saddled him, tightening the girth around Hammer's muscled midriff, tugged the stirrups down into place and led him out of the gate, closing it softly on the curious horses left inside. Hammer waited motionless for Flynn to get a booted foot into the stirrup and pull himself up into the saddle, settling down into the soft leather. Then Flynn touched the right hand rein and Hammer turned willingly, starting up the long, grassed drive at a steady walk, out towards the pastures that led north.

The man thing lay on the road beyond the fence.

Often, Bandit had heard the massive, noisy things grind past on the hard road. Like the others, he had watched, but flinched back from them. Now one lay beached, twisted on its side, with the bright lights streaming through the white mist rising from the road.

The mares were circling, staying near to each other, anxious and unwilling. Several of the foals had ventured a little closer, and one, a bright paint colt, was watching Bandit for cues, slender legs braced as he tried to gauge whether this was safe or dangerous. Two more foals had grown bored and were boxing, their high whinnies and whickering loud in the darkness. Bandit paced alongside the wire fence against the road, ears pricked forward, watching. He was not sure what had drawn him here: only that something had, and that the tug on his instincts was not yet fading. On his third passage down the side of the long fence, he heard what his instincts had discerned from miles away on his territory.

The fence stood six feet high and dense, the defence between the road and the very edge of the pastures. The herd did not graze here. It was unsafe and noisy and Bandit would not usually let the mares so close. He circled away, his gliding trot getting higher, springier. The mares shifted and several whickered uneasily, calling to their foals and to him. Bandit circled again, wider, and his stride suddenly lengthened into a canter, then without warning there came suddenly a burst of fantastic speed that erupted into a full charge, muscles bunching and rolling beneath his coat, steam bursting up from his nostrils. The gallop took him straight at the fence, the force and weight of his hooves whipping up the grass in frozen clods behind him. Bandit took the final stride with a summoning of all his power, he tucked his forelegs close under him as he sailed up into the air, and the massive stallion cleared the wire fence with a foot to spare, to skitter across the slippery road as he landed, his unshod hooves clattering. The beached thing did not move.

Bandit stood for a moment, watching it. Then cautiously he came closer, avoiding the bright lights near the front, and instead ducking his head curiously towards the buckled metal frame at the back. The sound from inside pulled on his instincts again, still harder. He struck the metal lightly with one heavy hoof. The sound from inside immediately intensified, and this time Bandit heard the desperate note. He reared up and both massive hooves pawed the air for a moment before slamming down against the metal. Again and again the stallion lashed out, smashing at the barrier in front of him, battering it, and inch by inch the buckling twisted further. And further. Until Bandit turned and lashed out with his rear hooves, with all his weight behind the blow, and the metal thing fell back with an awful sound, striking the frozen road.

She had fallen with one leg trapped beneath her when the beached thing rolled over on the highway. She twisted her head around to Bandit, whickering in desperation and pain. Bandit kicked harder at the second door, knocking it back before he forced his way inside. She had been penned at one end, there were wooden barriers that Bandit recognised like the fences near the house. He nosed at her for a moment through the bars, one of which had splintered, then reared up as far as the narrow box would allow and the barriers smashed down as his hooves landed on them. The mare made a valiant effort to jerk herself up, struggling on the floor. Bandit nosed at her, urging her, but her leg was trapped beneath her weight, the walls of the barriers were too close to let her roll over, and she couldn't rise. Bandit nudged at her again and she turned to touch noses with him, breathing in his calm, his comfort. Then the stallion moved his head and bit hard at her haunch, making her scream and struggle wildly to jerk to her feet, and Bandit's teeth sank into the nape of her neck, yanking her up and back. His strength hauled her upwards. For a moment he was braced, feet spread, sliding slightly on the metal and holding the weight of the thrashing mare in his jaws before he got her far enough up for her to straighten her leg, then suddenly she was on her feet. Shivering, trembling, but upright and her panicked breathing starting to slow. Bandit put his head behind her, herding her towards the door and the cold of the outside. She hesitated, afraid of the streaming, harsh electric light outside splashed onto the road, but at his nudge she scrambled down, and Bandit turned back to the straw at the soft sound of protest from within the straw.

The foal was young. Born in early winter, stable bred, frightened, he had never before been outside a stable and although he was bound on instinct to follow wherever his mother led, he shook with fear. Bandit pushed the little creature ahead of him, nudging it gently when it froze in the open doorway, until it half fell to the road and ran to its mother for protection. On the far side of the fence, the mares stood watching.

There was no way to take the mare back over the wire. Only one animal on the ranch could clear seven feet of fence. The stallion stood quietly for a moment, watching his herd, then he walked up the bank to the wire and once more he reared, his massive hooves slashing the wire with the force of a sledge hammer. The top strand snapped without difficulty and as Bandit struck again and again, ignoring the cuts of the barbs around his hocks, the wire strands snapped, gave and fell beneath his blows. The six month old foals fled to their mothers, watching with wide eyes, but a few minutes later there was a hole ripped wide in the fence, as destroyed as if a tank had passed through. Bandit circled the mare and she moved willingly ahead of him through the space in the wire, immediately followed by her shivering foal. Bandit herded her up hill towards the waiting mares, plunging her deep into the middle of the group. The ranks closed around the mare and frozen foal, and although the mares delivered the usual suspicious snaps and stamps to an unfamiliar intruder, their big bodies broke the chill of the wind and gave warmth.

Circling around behind them, dropping his head to snake and weave as he herded them, Bandit started the band moving back east across the plateau.

The land was silent as Flynn rode up through the frost white pastures, keeping Hammer to a steady trot until the horse was warm and they reached the softer ground. There he let the big gelding have his head and Hammer cantered, covering the ground in long, loping strides under the last of the stars. The river was loud when Flynn drew him in on the first of the plateaus that led to the tops. Miles of ground stood all around them. The horses could be anywhere, tucked in a dip between two hills where the wind would be kept from them. Bandit chose his spots carefully to find shelter at night, and as the weather grew worse in the winter, the stallion's strategies grew more complex. He would take the herd down to water at the warmest times of day, take them to where the grass grew thickest through the daylight, then move them down again to shelter when the temperature dropped. The stallion knew every inch of his vast territory.

On instinct, Flynn turned Hammer west, riding out across the low plateau.

He saw the light from more than a mile away, shining across the open ground. He turned Hammer directly towards it then, urging the big gelding into a long legged, steady trot that ate the distance. From a few hundred yards away he could recognise the outline of the fallen truck. At the fence line, he dropped down from Hammer's back and ducked under the wire. The cab was still closed. Flynn opened the cab door and climbed up, bracing himself on the cabin roof. The driver was groaning but when Flynn touched his face he lifted his head, blinking.

"Ok?" Flynn said softly. "Can you move?"

"Yeah, just knocked my head –" The driver's voice was blurry and his accent suggested he came from further north. Flynn gripped his forearm, helping him extricate himself, and a moment later they both stood on the frozen road. The man shook his head hard, clearing it in the cold air as Flynn walked to the back of the truck, looking at the shattered doors. They looked as though dynamite had been taken to them.

"What were you carrying?"

"Pedigree mare and foal," The driver followed him to the back of the truck, weaving slightly as he walked. "She's a racer. Canyon's Echo. Taking them up to Cheyenne, they're being flown out to some bluegrass racing stable-"

"She's gone." Flynn climbed inside the bed of the twisted truck, checking the shattered barriers. Only one pen of the four inside the huge truck had been occupied and its walls had been torn down. The man swore horribly behind him.

"You think the doors burst? Jeez, if she's loose on the roads-"

Flynn swung down from the truck bed and walked away from the man, a few hundred yards up the road where the fence was torn as though a truck had barged through. The man was still swearing.

"That mare's worth a small fortune, so is the foal – if they're hurt….. how far do your fences run? Where will she go if she's loose?"

"Our ranch is twelve thousand acres," Flynn said bluntly, "Ranch along side us there is eight thousand. Ranch below that is nine and a half thousand. She's got a good long run if she wants it."

The man's language would have impressed even Riley.

"But she's not loose." Flynn added, turning the collar of his jacket up further. The man came to look with him at the wire, torn away in yards.

"Well I'll be……"

What he would be was neither repeatable nor anatomically likely.

"Have you had poachers through here?" he demanded. "Someone's put an articulated truck through that! Rustlers. Would they have taken her?"

"Someone has, but it wasn't rustlers." Flynn picked up the fallen strands of wire, pulling the ever present wire cutters from his pocket. "Hadn't you better radio for help? That truck's blocking the whole highway."

"It'll take a damn crane to get it up again." The man groused, looking at it. "And no doubt hours to get help out here in the middle of nowhere."

"Three or four." Flynn agreed, reconnecting wire. "You'd better to stay in the cab and keep warm while you wait. Your engine’s still good."

"What about the mare?" the man demanded. "You think I'll be paid with God knows how many thousand dollars worth of horse running around out here?
Canyon's Echo
? Probably hurt-"
"She isn't hurt."

"What are you, psychic or something?"

"If she was hurt she wouldn't have gotten out of the truck. Or she'd be hanging around the truck, not wanting to move." Flynn ducked through the wire, fastening another strand behind him. "When this truck's cleared, better tell your employer to get himself a transport down to the Falls Chance ranch if he wants his horse back."

The man swore at his back. Flynn took no notice, walking steadily up the hill towards Hammer. Hammer stood still to be caught, lipping at Flynn's jacket until Flynn rubbed his nose, turning him to mount up once more. He could still hear the man's cursing as he rode uphill, turning Hammer back towards the lower plateaus.

The gates would have to be opened.

~*~  ~*~  ~*~

The foal was cold.

Lacking the age, the weight and the fall-thickened coats of the experienced six month olds who were used to the cold nights, even with the press of the mares’ bodies around it, the small foal was shivering pitifully and as soon as the mares paused to graze, the foal pushed beneath it's mother's belly, grabbing for a teat to suck milk that held life-giving warmth. Bandit walked slowly through the mares. One or two turned their heads to brush against him, and when he paused to graze beside one, she ducked her head, twisting her neck against his. The foals, given a few minutes freedom, wandered, grazed and several played, watched by their mothers who went on eating placidly. Echo was calmed by their serenity and trust. The big stallion radiated calm. Although the bite on her haunch was swollen and sore, he had not snapped again, and he moved quietly towards her, standing uphill and turning his body so he blocked the down draft of the frosty wind. She edged gratefully into his side, sheltering under him while her foal nursed. The peace of the land was beginning to sink in to her, taking away the fear and agitation of the long truck ride, the terrible crash and the fall. Her foal was close, unhurt, and the stallion’s body sheltered them both. The soft sound of a river ran to the east, the grass was soft underfoot when the stallion pawed away the frost on the surface and she bent her head to eat, grazing alongside him. 

When the lead mare began to move again, Bandit left Echo to circle the herd, gathering up the stragglers. She heard the sound of his hooves on the grass, the trotting of a mare who had wandered a little too far and whom he harried to bring back, and then they all walked again, steadily together, towards the sound of the river.

Light was coming up above the trees when they reached the river banks. Echo followed the others into the shallows, bending her head and eagerly sucking back the icy water. The stallion stood for some minutes, looking around, before he lowered his head too and drank, taking in the gallons he needed to sustain him. Once he had drunk his fill, he walked back up the bank and stood, watching his mares, his foals and the one very small foal spread out below him, and scenting the air. The little one was too small to be with the herd up on this high ground. This foal was not of his blood, but it was of a mare in his herd, it was now of his band, and it pulled on every one of the stallion’s powerful instincts. Bandit ran his herd in the soft nursery pastures in the summer when such little ones ran with them, where the water was warm, where foals could safely sleep in the grass. This one should not be up here. It was weak. It was cold. This was danger.

Smoke reached his nostrils and he twitched them in response. Smoke came from the house. The house was awake and alive, and then he knew, without a doubt, Flynn was coming to open the gates.

It was not snowing. There was no gale. Those were the times that the herd must be brought down to shelter. And yet Bandit knew. Flynn was coming to open the gates.

Safety lay down in the valley where the house stood. No foals froze in the pastures there near the smoke and the oats and the men. Bandit waited a while longer, letting the mares drink. Morning was coming. The air was still stiff with mist but the temperature was rising with the sun. When he nosed Marika up the bank, the other mares followed without question and began to walk steadily, down the gently sloping pastures south, Echo and her foal within their ranks.

Flynn was gone.

Dale rolled over and lay blinking for a moment. It was just past five. Too early even for Jasper to be up, and yet Flynn's clothes were gone. There was only the warmth of him left in the bed and the faint scent of his cologne on the pillow to show where he had been. Dale slid out of bed, found his own clothes and dressed. He did not wait to shave and he paused only to take a biscuit from the larder as he shouldered into a jacket in the kitchen.

It was getting light outside. He found Hammer gone from the corral and the heavy hoofmarks were just visible in the frosty ground.

It was not unknown for Flynn to roam when he wanted space. When the mood hit him he wanted open ground and to be alone; he needed it in the same way an animal did. Dale stood where he was at the end of the drive, looking up at the green slopes that stretched in all directions around him in the half light. Somewhere up on the tops Bandit and his band of mares would be pressing together for warmth against the chill wind, waiting for the warmth of the sun. Out to the east, the cattle and the sheep would press into their lean to shelters against the wind and wait for the bales of hay that would be pulled out for them when he and Riley rode up in a few hours to check on them.

There were twelve thousand square acres spread around him and a hundred ways that Flynn might have gone. Dale leaned on the fence and looked upward across the slopes north, shoulders hunched against the wind, and waited. 

~*~  ~*~  ~*~

The foal was struggling to walk now. A few times it slowed to a halt, head hanging, and when Bandit's snapping finally failed to move it, he snapped instead at the distraught Echo, forcing her on down the slope in the one action he knew would work. And within a few seconds, faced with the terror of separation, the foal would cry and find new reserves of strength, stumbling forward to remain with its mother. Stopping meant death. Relentlessly, Bandit herded them on, keeping their pace slow but steady, keeping them in the lee of the woodland where the frost was lightest and the wind bit the least. He kept the band tight together, and only when he came in sight of the fence line did he turn them towards the gateway. It was open.

His heart rising, Bandit herded them on, crossing the next massive pasture over the grass.

Flynn was opening the bottom gate when he first saw the herd step out of the mist on the slopes above. They were gathering speed as the mares began to anticipate what they knew would lay below them: cold and weariness was being forgotten for warm thoughts of oats and hay and shelter. Flynn wedged the gate right back, keeping Hammer clear to let the herd pass him. The mare he was looking for walked at the back, with a small, black foal limping pitifully and slowly by her side and Bandit close behind them. Flynn untied the roll of rope from his saddle and dismounted. The mare reared as he approached, and Bandit pushed in front of her, using his large body to keep hers away. The foal was too tired to fight. Gently and deftly, Flynn pushed it down on to its side on the grass and used the rope to gently loop around its forefeet, aware of Bandit forcing back the panicking mother. When he gathered up the foal and walked with it towards Hammer, Bandit herded Echo away, snapping with his teeth inches from her haunch and chasing her down after the rest of the brood mares. The stallion’s gesture of trust was not lost on Flynn. Heaving the little foal over Hammer's saddle bow took strength, but Hammer stood patiently, unmoved. Flynn mounted on the saddle behind it, using his knees and one arm to keep the long but slight little body in place, and urged Hammer into a fast walk.

It was full daylight when the herd first came into view from the drive way. Dale straightened up off the fence, blinking. There was no doubting it. The mares came bunched, moving at a steady trot, and behind them there was no mistaking Bandit, broad and with his blond mane and tail sailing in the wind. They were coming down. And behind them – well behind them – was Hammer, and the outline of Flynn in his saddle.

Dale came to life with an effort. The big roofed open shelter around the big paddock behind the garage that they used in summer to vaccinate and handle cattle and to manage sheep during shearing, was kept ready to accommodate the horse herd in bad weather, and Dale opened the gates wide and grabbed a sack of oats from the barn, filling the feed bins. Before he was done, the mares were pouring through the gates, eager to feed, with their foals bounding ahead of them to reach the oats. Dale half filled the wide, black bucket that lived inside the barn door specifically for this purpose, kept it in his hand and climbed the paddock rails. One by one the mares and foals filed through the open gateway. Behind them, last of all, came Bandit, and Dale hung the bucket on a fence rail, giving the stallion his own personal share. He closed the gate as he climbed down, and went to meet Flynn, taking in the small foal draped across his saddle, then reaching to gather it up as Flynn handed it down to him. Flynn swung down to the ground and took the foal's back legs and between them they manhandled it into the stables where Flynn opened a loose box with one hip, and they laid the little creature down on the thick straw. Flynn bent to untie the foal's legs and snapped on the heat lamp above the stall.

"Is this one of Bandit's?" Dale demanded, looking at the size of the foal. "Has one foaled up there we haven't seen?"

Flynn grinned, pulling a blanket down to cover the foal, but didn't answer. He reached for Dale's hand as they walked from the stable, closing the door to keep in the warmth, and he led Dale across to the paddock. The mares were feeding. Dale ran an eye over them automatically. He knew them all by outline and by name, and his eye stopped on the unfamiliar mare with the long and delicate legs.

"Who's that? Where did she come from?"

"That is Canyon's Echo. Bandit went and got her." Flynn wrapped an arm around Dale's waist, pulling him tight into his side to block the sharp bite of the wind. "I found a truck down on the highway. She was being transported to Cheyenne, and the truck overturned. Bandit kicked her free."

"He kicked in a truck?"

"He'd kick down a house to get to a mare." Flynn watched the stallion with a look Dale recognised. It was a peculiar mixture of admiration, respect, affection and lust: something he had found bizarre when he first came here but something he had long since begun to share in and understand. There was something visceral about a powerful, beautiful male, whatever shape he took.

"He tore down the wire like it was paper."

"How did you know?" Dale demanded. Flynn gave one of his rare, open grins.

"The wire was in pieces and so was the truck. Bandit kicked it down for her."

He climbed the paddock fence and Dale leaned on the rail, watching Flynn walk to the stallion, run a hand down his long neck and then lift the bucket from the fence post, holding it himself. He often did it when the stallion had brought the herd here, fed Bandit with his own hands, and Dale understood it. There was respect within the gesture. A courtesy, between two working partners. Bandit lifted his head from the bucket several times while he ate, looking directly at Flynn, and Dale had seen them do that too. Stand face to face, meeting eyes, until you almost expected to see them exchange salutes. When the stallion finally cleared the last of the oats, Flynn ran a hand down his nose and dropped his hand on the heavy neck in a clap that raised dust, and Bandit turned to walk down the line of feeding mares and foals. Flynn hung the bucked back on the fence rail.

"You knew he'd bring them down here?" Dale asked him. Flynn climbed the fence, dropping down on the impacted red earth beside him.


"But he must have known you'd have the gates open for him to bring them down."


Dale gave him a sideways look. "So which of you thought of it first?"

Flynn peeled off his gloves, stuck them into his belt and turned Dale around, cupping his long hands around Dale's hips, which he could do quite easily. And then without effort he lifted Dale up onto the rail of the corral, standing between his knees to run his hands up inside Dale's jacket and under his shirt. Dale pulled the Stetson off Flynn's head and ran his fingers through Flynn's scattered hair, taking a breath as Flynn's iced fingers warmed on his ribs.  Across the corral, Echo whickered anxiously and stepped closer to Bandit, tucking herself under the warmth of his wide shoulder. The stallion touched his nose to her, licking her neck, and after a minute she nosed at the oats in the feed bins and began to eat.

"How did you find the truck?" Dale said softly. Flynn shrugged beneath him.

"I saw the light out there. Bandit must have heard the crash."

"And you just woke and went out, and went straight to the truck?"

"I guess." Flynn's arms snaked around Dale's waist and Dale hugged his head as tightly as Flynn's arms hugged him.

"Riley always said you were two parts stallion."
Flynn snorted into Dale's midriff, nipping a little with sharp teeth to make Dale squirm. "I've got to get the mare and Bandit in a stall to warm that foal. If you want to come with me and figure out which parts, you go right ahead."

~The End~

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

1 comment:

Bonner said...

I don't know how many times I've read this but, it keeps getting better. Though I would like ya'lls take on the owner coming to get his horses back.
Love ya'll