Whatever it was, my horse didn’t want any.
Krasher’s ears were cocked forward at attention. Ten years of ranch life had taught him to relax— as much as a horse could. Most of the stuff he thought would kill him hadn’t even made him tired, like the first time he carried a pack-saddle. But horses were particular. Sometimes a thing they’d seen a hundred times scared the bejesus right out of ‘em.
“That saddle’s possessed,” we’d joke as the horse went berserk. “Wasn’t ever before, but it is right now.”
The year I broke Krasher, a fast moving river swept a stick carrying beaver between his legs. He went bull-goose looney, and didn’t stop bucking until I surfaced on the downstream side of the hole where he tossed me. He was on the bank, reins dangling to the ground, snorting at the beaver, who just kept swimming to wherever it had in mind for placing the stick. Krasher spooked almost as bad at my boots sloshing and the river dripping from my deformed Stetson.
There’d been plenty of trails since then, but right now he wouldn’t go. I didn’t think much of it. Perhaps the waning light scared him or the wind and the dark clouds overhead were chuck full of demons only he could see. I boot-heeled him, but all he’d do was back up, snort and strike with his front hooves.
A canopy of needles topped the arrow straight Lodge Pole Pines surrounding us. Between the trunks were bushes and grass. A hundred feet ahead was a pile of boulders with a raspberry thicket halfway up. The thicket moved, and I realized what Krasher was worried about a black bear of some concealed critter. Krasher’s instinct was to run, but I wanted some raspberries. A gunshot would scare the bear away easy enough. So I got off and tied Krasher to a tree.
“Nothin’s gonna eat you.”
He brushed me aside with the toss of his head as he kicked at the air with his hind legs. “Steady!” I scolded.
Krasher’s ears and eyes focused on the boulders and then he went to yanking back so hard some pinecones fell, which scared him even worse. I feared he’d topple the tree, but it held and so did my tether.
“That’ll be a dandy to untie,” I grumbled in anticipation of how tight the knot would be.
A hissing squeal came from behind and I spun back toward the raspberries. Whatever it was hissed again. Krasher spun into me as I was trying to slide my rifle from its scabbard.
Wedged between two boulders beside the thicket was fur. All matted with mud, I doubted it was living. Some animal must’ve crawled into the crack to die. But if it truly was dead, what was making the noise? I didn’t think I’d seen the fur from the horse, but the change in angle from saddleback to feet could account for that. Not wanting Krasher to live up to his name again, I decided against the Winchester and palmed the six-shooter from my hip.
A grouse exploded beneath my feet halfway to the boulders. His wings beat the air until he landed on a tree branch. I was half tempted to shoot him from the perch, but if I missed there was no telling where the bullet would go and I hadn’t given up on the raspberries.
When I looked again at the boulders the fur was gone.
Whatever it was should have left tracks but when I got to the boulders there wasn’t a single one or even a raspberry. Smeared mud, warm to my touch and still damp, marked the boulders where I’d spotted the fur.
Some twigs snapped somewhere to my left.
A lightning strike lit up the sky, and the attendant thunder roared in the same instant.
Something big was running away from me through the woods.
“Git back here!” I yelled as Krasher galloped, clipping trees and breaking branches in his wake. I spun, scanning all about until my eyes rested on the tree where I’d tied the horse. It only took seconds to run to the spot, where I found horseshoe tracks surrounding the tree, but no lead rope.
Something with a fencing-plier strong thumb had untied the knot, and that same thumb might now be wrapped around my Winchester.
I dropped to the ground.
Rain started, but I lay still, even as thimble sized drops smacked my shirt. It built to a downpour, eventually soaking through my Stetson and running down my neck. But I stayed. If the trigger of my own gun was going to be pulled on me, I wasn’t going to give the shooter a daytime target. That was the plan, at least, until the wind started and the soaked clothing against my skin went from cool to freezing. Then it started to hail. The pebble sized ice-balls stung my back. The shaking started in my teeth so I clinched my jaw against the chattering.
My stomach told me it was past dinner time. The jerky and biscuits in my saddlebags would’ve been good. Hopefully Krasher had found his way to a meadow of tall grass—if he was still alive.
Night brought more rain and lightning. The woods went from pitch black to bright as noon with each strike. The forest would light up, and I’d try to look at a different spot to study how best to make my run. But there was never enough time for my mind to soak in the entire picture. Was that a tree, a rock, or something else? And then noises came from everywhere. Thunder would crack and the world got bright but seeing was never what I had pictured. During one of the longest strikes, a man covered in pelts stood twenty feet away. I was about to run, but when the woods lit up the next instant what I thought was a man was a broken tree trunk. The lightning stopped and everything went gravedigger dark and then quiet until the wind picked up again. Trees rubbing against each other, sticks cracking, and the wind whistling through the forest continued putting pictures in my head.
The moon came out from behind a sucker hole in the clouds, casting enough light to see. My legs would be too stiff for running if I stayed much longer, so I picked out a hundred year old Douglas Fir fifty feet ahead that had to be at least four feet thick. If no bullets came, and I made it, I’d keep going for the boulders where I’d seen the bushes shaking.
The hiss came from the place where I swore I’d seen the caveman.
I jumped from the ground, six-shooter in hand and ran for all I had. Nearing the tree, something ran like my shadow in the periphery to the right. Every hair on my body stood straight up. It couldn’t be my shadow because the moon was shining the opposite direction. I glanced and it sped toward me. I veered, hoping I’d keep from being overtaken. My lungs and legs gave out as the six-shooter felt lighter so I cocked the hammer, spun and stopped in one motion.
My breathing was ragged, gusting in and out of me. If I could only slow it down and get quiet perhaps I could blend into the shadows. Whatever it was must have stopped with me, but I couldn’t see, hear or smell anything. My lungs burned, but I held my breath listening. Nothing.
Movement between the trees to my left gave me a target, so I fired. If I hadn’t hit it, the gunshot exposed my position, but before I could move a branch snapped behind so I spun and shot rounds two and three. A granite rock hit my mouth. I stayed on my feet with blood spilling from my spit lips and over my chin. The next rock glanced off my shoulder and I spun to shoot the fourth fifth and sixth rounds into a moving shadow. Without looking away, I worked a bullet from my belt loop and thumbed open the revolvers trap door. I dropped the bullet in the cylinder but something sprang from the ground at my side. It walloped me so hard, I fumbled the gun. It was already at my neck. We thrashed tooth and fingernail. Me against something a foot taller than my six-feet. I tried for my knife but its hand closed around my forearm before I could take it from the scabbard. The bones snapped and my hand went numb. It threw me to the ground. My good hand palmed a rock, perhaps the one that had been thrown at me, only to have it torn away as easy as candy from a baby. A blow to the chest busted several ribs and knocked me down. It was on top of me. The second and third blows caught me across on the side of the head. My lungs screamed for air that wouldn’t enter and I thrashed like a fish out of water until the lighter places blended into the darker ones.
I woke surprised to be alive. Blood was still running from my mouth and head. What breathing I could muster crackled and popped. I tried to sit but was too weak, so I looked at the stars and palmed the dirt and pine needles with my un-crippled hand. My knife and gun were gone. I spent the next hour too battered to move more than a few inches, while worrying over my broken arm and the lifeless hand. I’d cough into a spasm with stabbing pain in my ribcage, then swallow the blood to my belly, too short of breath to spit past my chin. Sleep eventually vanquished the pain. Warm breath woke me before dawn. I panicked, kicking and squirming, igniting fire in my forearm and chest as the bone ends jabbed inside. The attacker had returned, I was sure, but then I recognized the snort and Krasher’s silhouette. The saddle was beneath his belly and the Winchester was gone, but my bedroll was still fastened behind the saddle.
Using the horn and rigging for a handle I pulled myself up and righted the saddle with my good arm and took off the blankets and canvas. The world closed in and I burrowed into the blankets and shivered myself warm. Sticks cracked, but Krasher stood statue still, unworried by the forest’s noises until the sun rose. Between bouts of coughing, I splinted my arm with two branches, wrapping them with my neckerchief.
Krasher stood steady as a brick shitter for me to climb aboard.
I couldn’t have fought my way out of a wet paper bag as Krasher stepped out steady and strong. The morning sun cast long shadows, forcing the night’s dew into rising steam like heaven bound souls. My swollen lips, scrapes under my torn shirt and several lumps on my head only started the list, but it was now all distant as Krasher moved, jostling aches that came to me like telegraphs from across a canyon. We crossed a stream and rounded a bend.
I coughed up a canteen of blood that splattered over Krasher’s mane and neck. More coughing stifled my breathing and then everything went numb. When I woke, Krasher stood over me. Something rustled to the left, and I coughed more blood on the ground. The hiss came from the tall grass, but I couldn’t even roll away. Then everything was warm, even my lifeless hand, as Krasher snorted and spun smacking the earth with his front hooves.
I blinked against the collapsing world. The tall grass shook and Krasher bolted away. I watched him disappear through reverse telescope vision into a tiny spot of bright light.
Atta boy. I thought. Save yourself, maybe another cowboy’ll listen. I no longer felt, smelled, heard or saw anything except death’s final notice. Swine and pearls come in all shapes and sizes.