the ironhorse sanctuary: chapter 2
If there was one decent thing about living in a town as small and backward as Rusted Hill, it was that there were still good, old fashioned hitching posts in front of half the shops, including the tavern. Being able to ride his horse right up to The Saloon, or more relevantly, back home once he’d finished drinking, had doubtlessly saved Davie Walker from DUIs and more likely than not, a totaled truck or two as well.
There was so damn little to do in Rusted Hill. The town was so small that all it had to offer in the way of entertainment was a crummy little diner, one slightly nicer restaurant, a video rental store, and The Saloon. High schoolers hung out at the football field, drinking after dark on the weekends, but that was just for kids, and sometimes people set up grills in the parking lot of the general store and loitered there, but that was just lame. The Saloon was the only real place to drink, and Walker could be found there at least five nights a week.
Sometimes Walker wished that he had gotten out of Rusted Hill after high school – that he’d joined the army, or navy, or anything to get him out of this nowhere little farming town, with a population of only a couple hundred. That night was one of those times, as he hauled himself onto his horse’s back, then promptly fell right off the other side, when his saddle slid all the way over. He slurred a few curses at both his horse, and himself, as he vaguely remembered that he’d loosened the saddle so old Trigger would be more comfortable while Walker was in the tavern.
Trigger knickered – a horse laugh, Walker was sure.
“Oh shut up,” he snapped, and went about setting the saddle up on his horse’s back again, and tightening the straps. His second attempt at mounting his horse went better, but he was forced to dismount again, after realizing that his horse was still hitched to the post. After getting back down and untying the animal, his third attempt at leaving proved to be the charm. Minutes later, he was ambling down the street, on the dirt road that headed straight out through the prairie.
It was a pretty long ride home to Walker’s family’s farm – almost an hour if he pushed it, but he’d learned long ago that pushing it while he was intoxicated was not a good idea. When he tried, he tended to find himself waking up on the ground the next morning, or as had happened last week, lying halfway in Muddy Creek – just because he’d learned his lesson a long time ago didn’t mean he always remembered it when he was drunk.
Walker took it slow that night, though. Even though it was early spring, it had been unusually warm of late. Without the cold biting at him, he had no reason to hurry – he was even able to appreciate his surroundings. The sky seemed bigger than usual that night. Clearer too. He could see about a million stars, and as he was riding over the creek bridge that marked the halfway point home, Walker remembered that he didn’t hate everything about his life there in Rusted Hill. There was the occasional good thing about living somewhere so remote. His friends who’d left and come back, either to stay or just to visit all agreed that nowhere else in the world was the sky as big as it was out west.
The young man gave a satisfied sigh. Suddenly, his horse lurched beneath him, and Walker found himself grabbing for the saddle horn to keep himself from falling.
“Whoa, easy boy,” he said, but Trigger shifted uneasily beneath him again and whinnied. “What’s gotten into you?”
Then Walker saw it – another horse, standing in the middle of the stream.
It was a fine animal. The moon was bright enough that he could tell this at a glance. It was a mare, her coat pale, and seemingly all one color, probably white or gray. Her mane was a few shades darker, though, and tangled with weeds . . . which was odd, since there weren’t really any waterweeds in Muddy Creek this time of year. The mare was unsaddled, and seemed to be alone, but was too well cared for to be wild.
“Hello there, beautiful,” Walker said softly, and slid off the side of his horse, only stumbling a little as he landed. “Where did you come from?”
Trigger whickered nervously when Walker tried to lead him forward, then planted his feet.
“Come on, boy,” Walker urged the gelding. “Come on. Oh, fine, stay then.” He let go of Trigger’s bridal and walked toward the mare on his own, knowing that his own horse wouldn’t stray too far. The times he’d fallen off, he’d always awoken to find the faithful horse right there, waiting for him.
The mare in the water regarded Walker through steady dark eyes as he drew closer.
“Hey, girl. What are you doing all the way out here?” Walker asked. If his words slurred together a bit, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like the horse could understand him, after all. “Where are you from, and who let you get away?”
He tried to remember if he’d ever seen this particular horse before. Rusted Hill was the kind of town where everyone not only knew everyone else, but also knew their car, or truck, or horse as well. Try as he might, however, Walker could not place this pale little beauty.
“You’re not wild. You’re too clean for that,” he said, speaking more to let her hear the calm tone of his voice than for any other reason. “A little on the skinny side, but there’s still enough meat on those bones of yours. How about you come home with me and Trigger tonight, then we’ll see about finding your owner in the morning, huh? How’s that sound?”
To his surprise, the horse walked out of the water and right toward him, almost as if she understood him.
“There’s a good girl,” Walker said, holding out his hand toward her, and stretching it until he could rest it on her nose. “Come on. There’s a good girl. You are a pretty one.”
Walker quickly realized that he had a slight problem. This new horse had neither a saddle nor a bridle. He would have preferred to ride Trigger home, leading this new horse along beside him, but it didn’t look now like that would be possible. Trigger was a much bigger horse than this small thing. His tack wasn’t likely to fit the strange mare very well, so moving it, or pieces of it over to her didn’t seem like a great idea. He didn’t know if he could cinch the saddle tight enough to keep it on her back. Walker took a moment to muddle over the logistics of this problem, and finally came to the conclusion that it would be easiest to ride this mare bareback and lead Trigger along by his reigns. There were other ways to go about it, but all in all, this one took the least amount of fooling around and planning, or so Walker’s alcohol hazed mind concluded.
“All right, I’m gonna mount up now. You hold still, girl,” Walker said. He put a hand on the mare’s shoulder, and when she held steady, he swung himself up onto her back – not as gracefully as he could have were she saddled, or were he sober, but he managed.
The mare held still until he was firmly settled on her back, but then she bolted back toward the water.
“Whoa! Whoa, girl! Stop!” Walker hung on as tight as he could, but when the mare plunged off the bank, he slipped off her back and into the murky water. “Damn it!”
The water wasn’t deep, at least not in that part of the creek. Walker guessed that it would only come up to his waist if he were standing – unfortunately, he couldn’t manage to keep his feet underneath him. As soon as he thought he’d gained his balance, the mare rammed into him and his feet slipped in the mud. He would have cursed again, had he the breath to.
Walker struggled to rise once more, but again the mare struck him, this time with flailing hooves, one of which clipped the side of his head. It was a grazing blow, but still enough to make his ears ring. He went limp for a moment, then felt the mare plant a hoof against his chest and put her weight down on it. Then he felt his back press down against the creek’s bottom.
She’s pinning me down! he realized with alarm and tried to struggle. When he instinctively tried to draw breath, he ended up only inhaling water. It burned through his nasal cavity. He tried to scream but that only made it worse, as his lungs filled with even more water.
Then Walker began thrashing in panic, all reason lost. He tried frantically to get his head back above the water, but with the horse stomping down on his chest it was no use. Gradually, his struggles grew weaker and weaker, until finally, they stopped altogether.
The mare kept the dead man pinned down a few minutes longer, once he went still, just in case he was playing possum. She didn’t think he had the presence of mind to do that, but she didn’t feel like taking any chances. She knew from experience how tricky human males could be. The last time she’d dropped her guard around one, even though she’d been certain he was helpless and contained, he’d managed to turn the tables on her. She didn’t want that happening again.
Finally, she decided that the drunk man had to be dead – that he’d been under water far longer than any human could survive without air. She stepped off him then and began walking back to the creek bank. As she went, her shape blurred and rippled, her form changing from a ghostly pale horse into that of a ghostly pale teenage girl in a skimpy white dress. She had a smile that was cold and mirthless, and a mask shaped like a galloping horse hiding the top half of her face. Had anyone been looking at her closely, they might have noticed that behind the mask, her eyes were completely black, even where they should have been white. A tangle of waterweeds was caught in her hair. She reached up and pulled it out in annoyance, then tossed it onto the bank. Kelpie, as she was called, didn’t know where those weeds came from, or why they always appeared in her hair when she shifted into her waterhorse form, but she wasn’t a fan of walking around with plants in her hair.
She looked back for a moment to regard the dead man who’d floated off the muddy bottom of the creek, but was drifting just below the surface. In the light of the moon, under the water, his skin looked as pale as hers. Kelpie wondered how long it would take his skin to truly turn that color, or if it would all be picked away by scavengers first, but that was only a passing curiosity. She shrugged and continued wading toward the bank.
“That wasn’t hard at all.”