by Sage Grey
The pony had broken its hobbles and run off two days ago. Luke had been walking since, with his saddle slung over one shoulder and saddlebags dragging from the other hand. It was getting towards noon and he was thinking about finding some shade to lie in, but so far none had presented itself. Hot country out here. No more than some cactus and lizards and the heat waving off towards the horizon. He couldn’t blame the pony for running off.
There were mountains out to his left, rising up out of the gray sand like one of his grandaddy’s mirages. He needed a town or a ranch more than he needed any cool there was to find down in the foothills. Somewhere he could get some work, find something to eat other than stringy half raw jackrabbit and tins of beans. On reflection: damn that pony.
Meanwhile the sun had risen to straight above his head, to about the worst place it could be. Out on the plain it was burning like bacon on a griddle with all the juice already cooked out. Nothing but dry sandy dust and unfriendly little plants. Finally, he came to a cactus that threw a shadow almost big enough for his chest. Luke propped up his saddle and dropped down onto the ground. Leaning back on his elbows, he took off his hat and rubbed the sweat off his forehead with a stained handkerchief from his shirt pocket. He unscrewed his canteen and wondered if he was going to die. He didn’t think about it for too long. No use really.
He lay down, put his hat over his face, crossed his arms over his chest, and dropped into something that was like sleep but was not exactly sleep.
When Luke woke it wasn’t much cooler, but the shadow of the cactus had lengthened. He’d knocked his hat to the ground. There was a desert mouse sitting up on its back legs staring at him, worrying a seed between its paws. It cocked its head.
“Get,” he told it.
It stuffed the seed in its mouth and vanished into the dust that it had come from.
“I ain’t dead yet,” he said after it.
The desert took in his words without comment.
“Well I ain’t.”
He heaved himself up and picked up his saddle and his bags and started walking again.
He found a spring around sunset. He didn’t know how; he’d always been good at finding water. His mother said he had Indian blood but he wasn’t sure about that. He didn’t know what being Indian had to do with finding water. All he knew was that he could usually find it, and that it was clean more often than it wasn’t.
This spring was barely more than a seep of water, coming from between two rocks at the bottom of what was either a small canyon or a big ravine. A few plants had straggled up around the puddle it formed: lanky grasses and an out of place, bleached looking flower. Luke put his face right down into the sweet, clear water and sucked up mouthful after mouthful until he felt like his insides were fit to split with it. Then he rolled onto his back and looked up at the darkening sky with one hand trailed into the pool, careful to leave his fingers very still so that he would not stir up the sediment at the bottom. The sky above him was shading into purple, made darker by the sharp walls of the ravine. There were a few thin clouds, high up and going red with the setting sun.
All of a sudden there were hoofbeats coming up the ravine. Two horses. Luke sat up. There wasn’t anywhere to hide; and even if there had been, he would have had to leave the saddle and the bags, and then he wouldn’t have had anything to eat or any spare bullets. His pistol was loose in its holster and he figured that was about the best he could hope for. There was also sometimes the unspoken peace of desert springs, though Luke did not trust peace, spoken or not.
Two horses approached. A man on foot was leading them, and there was a shaggy black and white dog skittering around their legs. All four were careful with their footing over the rocks. The dog barked when he smelled Luke and ran ahead but stopped a stone’s throw away from him. Luke stood. The dog shivered and barked again.
“Evening,” said Luke.
The dog whined as the man unconcernedly picketed the horses. It was almost full dark by then. Luke set about making a fire, a small one since there wasn’t much to burn. He wouldn’t have just for himself; beans tasted about the same cold or hot as far as he was concerned. But if the man was disinclined to talk, he also appeared disinclined to use the rifle slung over the saddled horse’s withers. When the man was done with the horses, he splashed some water on his face and sank down next to the fire.
“Nice to sit a minute,” the man said. He was younger than Luke had thought–he had wrinkles around his yellowy hazel eyes, but his hair was dark and free of gray. The land and the sun had ways of aging people. Luke hadn’t seen himself in a mirror recently enough to know whether it had begun its work on his face or not.
They sat in silence again. The dog lay down by his master and looked at Luke with sad eyes. “Where you going to with a saddle and no horse?” the man asked, at last.
“Someplace I can find some work.”
“Don’t imagine you want to carry around that saddle for too long.”
“Must get heavy.”
“From time to time.”
The man laughed. “From time to time. I reckon so.”
The fire popped and sent red sparks up into the air. One of the horses whickered. There was the quiet drip of the spring. Luke felt sleepy all of a sudden. It had been a while since he had slept so near another human being.
When Luke woke up the next morning the dog was staring at him. It was lying a foot or so away from him with its head on its paws, its ears twitching to follow the movements of its master as he moved around the spring filling his canteens.
“Morning,” the man said. “Were you planning to put that saddle on that horse over there or did you want to keep walking.”
“I suppose I could get on the horse.” Luke hadn’t been expecting the offer, but now that it had arrived, he found that he wasn’t surprised. The other man didn’t seem like the type of person to leave another man stranded in a desert, but Luke thought he’d been wrong about more people than he’d been right. He didn’t understand his fellow men in the way that he understood animals.
“Thought you might.”
Luke washed his face in the spring, then filled his canteen and rolled up his blanket. The man had already saddled the tall, bony bay, so Luke followed suit with the other. She was a neat little mare, a chestnut the color of sun breaking on hilltops. Her ears pricked when he stroked her neck, and she curved her head around to touch his arm gently with her soft lips.
“Good-looking mare,” Luke said.
“She’s a bitch, I’m warning you. Wonder she hasn’t bit you yet.”
“Better than carrying that saddle.”
They led the horses out of the ravine, the dog barking birds out of the bushes ahead of them.
“Ain’t you planning to ask where we’re going?” the man asked him after they’d mounted. The mare fidgeted between Luke’s knees and arched her neck into the bit.
“It don’t matter that much,” Luke answered. “I don’t reckon I can be too picky.”
The man looked at him with narrowed eyes, then shrugged. “Don’t guess you can. Anyways we’re headed up to Troy. That bitch you’re riding is going to be the prize for their horse-race, so be careful. My boss’ll skin me alive if she breaks a leg ‘fore she gets there.”
After that they rode in quiet, only interrupted by the running of the dog, the sounds of the horses’ breathing, and the creaking of leather. The mare settled down and followed the bay quietly enough. Luke could feel the care with which she placed her feet, dainty like an East Coast lady at a big party with a crystal punch bowl and a string band.
It took them three days to reach Troy. In that time Luke learned that the man’s name was Wilder, that he worked for one of the big ranchers, and that if Luke himself had to send the mare so many miles away, he would have put her under the guard of a cavalry company. (In fact she had started out with a larger escort, but the other man’s horse had wrenched an ankle, and he’d elected to walk her back to the ranch rather than shoot her. This was the kind of decision that Luke admired in a person. Wilder appeared to feel the same.)
From time to time Wilder would say that he’d never seen the mare take to anyone before, and it was a shame Luke had no money and no horse or he could’ve tried to win her himself.
After Luke unsaddled her at the livery stable, she leaned her chest against the stall door and tried to reach him with her nose across the aisle. Luke walked back to her without altogether having meant to and let her hide her face against his chest. He scratched her ear and she breathed through her long nose against his stomach. The dog, locked in with her to keep guard, whined, unhappy to be left alone.
“Touching as this moment is,” Wilder called from the stable door. Another thing that Luke had learned was that Wilder had a mouth on him, although he didn’t use it much. In the time they’d been on the road he’d turned it on the heat and the bay, after the normally-unflappable horse had spooked at a snake and thrown him. Luke had sat on the mare, feeling her heartbeat even through the saddle, while Wilder berated the bay, the snake, the rocks underneath him and God above. After a while he had started laughing, and Luke had joined him.
Luke rubbed the long bones of the mare’s head and followed Wilder out. He could feel her watching him all the way.
They went to the saloon next door to the hotel where Wilder had gotten them a room, and ate steak and mashed potatoes. Men gradually collected in the corners of the place, banging down whiskey and poker chips to the tinny sound of a piano and the shrill giggles of the girls in their tight dresses. After a while Wilder joined a card game. Luke sat at the bar watching it all in the reflection of the mirrored shelves, holding their bottles of whiskey, gin, and rum. He asked for a coffee and drank it slowly. When the first girl came up to him he brushed her off and went outside.
There wasn’t much light in the street, only what was thrown out from the lit windows of the buildings. A few horses were tied to the hitching post outside the saloon. They watched him as he walked past. Without thinking too much about it, he ended up back at the stable. The mare was pacing in her stall, but when she heard his footstep she came to the door. He rubbed her face and her neck, then let himself into the stall to bridle her. He led her outside. The dog, who had been cowering in a corner against her ire, trotted reproachfully after.
“I’m not stealing her,” he told it.
Taking a handful of her mane, he swung himself up onto her back. Her muscles shifted between his thighs and she shook her head, but stood until he kneed her forward. They jogged out of town, out past the lights and noise of the saloon. There were two roads, one up to a graveyard and one heading straight out like a shot arrow, towards the hills in the distance. The moon was just past full and gave enough light that he wasn’t scared to gallop her on the hill road.
He gave the mare her head and she leapt forward. She ran lightly but the sound of her hooves was loud in his ears and the quiet of the night. Luke leaned forward over her neck, feeling her mane whip back over his knuckles. He buried his free hand in it. At last she began to slow and reluctantly he reined her in. She shook her head, fighting his hand but at last she stopped. He turned her back towards the town. It was visible as a suggestion of lights and the shapes of buildings that dragged slowly closer with the mare’s reluctant steps.
About halfway there, Wilder and the bay appeared out of the dark. “I figured you weren’t stealing her since you left the saddle.”
“Just went for a ride.”
Wilder said he was crazy. They rode back towards Troy, the mare skittering from side to side over the road and bouncing off the bay’s solid indifference. Wilder asked where he’d learned to sit a horse like that. Luke answered that his grandfather had been a gambler and a drunk, and his mother too sick to work, so he broke horses on the ranch next to their hardscrabble little shack. They paid him fifteen cents a ride. He’d ride eight, nine, ten horses a day, their bodies twisting and jarring underneath him until he couldn’t tell up from down, only that the horse was between him and the ground.
Wilder told him that was a hard way to live, and Luke looked straight ahead, through the mare’s ears, because he could not bear to see the sympathy on Wilder’s face.
When they got back to the stable, Luke rubbed the sweat off the mare’s neck and then watched Wilder unsaddle the bay. “Do you think,” he said, “that I could ride your horse in that race?”
Wilder didn’t answer at first. “Don’t know,” he said finally. “Boss might not like how that looked much.”
“Don’t work for your boss.”
“Guess you don’t.”
Once they left the barn Wilder lit two cigarettes and handed him one. Luke slowly inhaled the smoke and breathed it out. The heat of the mare’s body had kept him warm but now it was cold except for the smoke. He followed Wilder to the boardinghouse, and up to the room that they would share. He sat on the bed to take off his boots while Wilder bolted the door. When Wilder came to the bed and leaned down and put their mouths together, Luke wondered if this was the reason for all of the little kindnesses, from the steak dinner to the laughter they had shared on the trail, to the fact that Wilder hadn’t shot him dead for taking the mare out for a gallop; and then he realized that it didn’t matter if it was.
Wilder smelled like cigarettes and the sweat of animals. He pushed Luke back onto the bed with a low sound, deep in the back of his throat. Luke kissed him back, closing his eyes and putting his hands in Wilder’s thick hair. Wilder’s stubble scratched at his neck as he moved his mouth lower, then pulled Luke’s neckerchief off with his teeth. Luke closed his eyes as Wilder unbuttoned his shirt, making circles with his fingertips against the skin of Wilder’s scalp.
After he had taken off his shirt, Wilder unbuckled Luke’s belt, throwing it down next to the bed. It made a dull thud as it hit the floor. Luke tried to keep his breathing even as Wilder pulled down his pants. A drunk stumbled through the hall outside, and Wilder froze with his cheek on Luke’s belly. When the drunk had quieted Wilder puffed a breath over Luke, then swallowed him down. Luke meant to shut his eyes but he couldn’t stop looking at Wilder, at the sweat along his hairline, and the hollows his cheeks made around Luke’s dick. His wolf eyes that flickered open and closed.
Wilder reached back between Luke’s legs. Luke couldn’t keep himself from twitching as he felt Wilder’s fingers at his entrance. Wilder said “Sh,” into the crease of his leg, hands soothing like they were on the neck of his bay horse. Luke was not exactly nervous, but it had been a long time since he had been touched by anyone in this way, and he remembered pain more than anything else. But Wilder was gentle and went slow, so slow, so after a while Luke couldn’t do anything but twist around in the sheets and touch himself, biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself quiet. When Wilder’s fingers tightened on his shoulder and his hips gave one final, deep jerk, Luke tasted blood, and came himself.
Wilder kissed his shoulder, and then his mouth. After they had kissed for a while Wilder curled himself up, fingers just touching Luke’s side, and they fell asleep.
The next day was Sunday, the day of the horse race. The air felt festive, tense. Horses and buggies trotted into town all morning. There was a traveling preacher to give a sermon but Luke didn’t much care for preaching no matter what his mother had tried to teach him. He spent the morning in the stable instead, sitting on the floor of the mare’s stall with the dog’s head on his leg. As he scratched the dog, the mare drifted around minding her own business, chewing hay or coming over to lip at his hair. Finally Wilder came to take her away to be paraded before the town.
“I reckon you can ride the bay,” he said.
“I do.” So Luke saddled up the bay and led him out of the stable. Wilder and the mare were already gone down the street so he mounted up and got a feel for the bay’s paces. He was a big, strong horse with a rougher gait than the mare, but Luke thought it would be all right. He’d ridden in races like this when he was younger, gatherings of cowponies and the odd blood horse that would run for the pleasure of betting men and cheering children, and a general sense of celebration. He’d won some on his old horse, the one he’d had to sell after his grandaddy died, to pay down the gambling bills.
Luke rode slowly towards the crowd. The sermon had ended and there was a man up on a stand calling for entries, and then he announced there would be a picnic with food cooked by local ladies after the race was over. Wilder was holding the mare over by the stand and she was tossing her head and turning tight circles around his body. A dog ran too close to her feet and she struck out with a hind hoof, grazing its body. The dog yelped and tore off into the crowd.
Luke joined the cluster of men and horses behind the stand. He didn’t look at any of them too closely. Either he and the bay would win or they wouldn’t. A man came through and took down all twenty-nine of their names and told them that the race would be out to a dead tree two miles out of town and back. The man on the stand called for them all to line up. Luke kneed the bay into the line. They stood, and Luke could feel the tension eddying up and down the line of horses, in the stamping of their legs and the curses of their riders. At last everyone was still and quiet and the starter shot off a gun and the bay and the line of horses all lunged forward.
He would never be able to remember the race in detail. Dust in the back of his throat, the beating of the bay’s hooves and his long stride so unlike the mare’s surging over and over again like the ocean waves that he had heard of but never seen. In the end he did win: the reach of the bay’s legs as he ran down the main street towards the finish, the elastic stretch of his neck and the flat back of his ears as he held off the second-placed horse.
They rode out of town: Wilder on the bay and Luke on his mare, with the dog running ahead.
“You could come back to the ranch,” Wilder said. “Boss’d give you a job most likely, with the way you ride.”
“Wouldn’t want to cause a problem, with the horse and all.”
“How you going to feed that mare?”
“I’ll find something.”
“You’ll find something?” Wilder asked, cocking his head like a bird.
Luke looked at him and the arch of his eyebrow, and wanted to say I found you, didn’t I, but that wasn’t the sort of thing he would ever say. Instead, he told Wilder that he always managed something.
“That’s that then.”
“Thanks,” Luke said when they had come to a fork in the road. It wasn’t at all what he meant but he didn’t know the right thing to say.
Wilder tipped his hat and kicked the bay forward into a lope. The mare stood like a rock underneath him, and Luke watched them get smaller and smaller through the frame of her ears. When they were almost gone, she tipped one little ear back at him.
“Get on then,” he told her. She shook her mane and chased off after the plume of dust rising behind Wilder and the bay, towards the cool hills rising up before them.
many thanks to olukemi for the beta. seriously, wouldn’t have happened with you.