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That Blasted Horse | Audio
By Jennifer R. Povey
Jennifer R. Povey is in her mid thirties, and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband. She writes a variety of speculative fiction, whilst following current affairs and occasionally indulging in horse riding and role playing games. She has prior sales to Analog and Digital Science Fiction. Her first novel, "Transpecial," was published by Musa Publishing in April, 2013.
       It all started with that blasted horse. A cowboy needs a horse that's tough, one that won't take any more shit than he will. Your average, regular horse, when a steer runs right at him, he'll run.
       You need a horse that will stare that steer down and never be the one that turns first. A real good cow horse is tough, smart and dominant. Which means you have to be tougher smarter and, you got it, even more dominant. Otherwise that blasted horse will run right over you the way that horse ran right over Morry.
       Morry wasn't a bad guy, but he let everyone run right over him. His horse, his cattle, his wife...not that you could have paid me enough to be married to that woman. The only reason I could think of was that she must have been real good in bed. Yeah, yeah. None of my business.
       But that blasted horse? Bay gelding with a thin stripe. He called it Striker. It would run him into trees and fences. I once saw it drag him through a stream by the reins. And it had a buck on it that would have been good enough for the rodeo, if you could have counted on it to do it on command.
       Yeah. Striker was one hell of a horse, but he wasn't the horse for Morry. So, in the end, he did what any sane man would do, and put up a flyer in the feed store putting Striker up for sale.
       Snag is, by that time, none of us would touch him. We figured the beast had been ruined, at that point, and the only thing for it was to feed it to the dogs. Fortunately, it wasn't a mare. Some guys, they figure if they have a bad-tempered mare the best thing to do is breed her. Then they end up with a bad-tempered colt and wonder why.
       Not that any of us thought Striker was bad. Just done for.
       Then the stranger came into town on the coach. Now, we don't get strangers in Larry's Gulch that often. When we do, they don't tend to stay long. This here's a cattle town, a ranchers' town. There ain't much for outsiders. Even if somebody's hiring, they hire locals first. It's the way it is.
       Now, this particular stranger was one nobody figured would stick around. First of all, it was a woman. I ain't got anything against women and I know a couple of girls who can wrangle a steer as well as any man. But most women, the only reason they're in a place like this is to catch a husband and most of the decent men around here have already been caught. The ones left are too old, too young, or too inclined to beat their wives. The ones looking for work are big, tough cowgirl types, and they're usually ugly. 'Course, most of those eventually catch a husband too...but at that time, I really figured there was nobody to catch.
       This woman was five foot nothing and although she wore work clothes, there was no way her delicate form would stand up to ranch work. She looked to have Spanish blood in her, maybe some Indian blood from the cheekbones. So, I put her in the looking for a husband category.
       She wandered up the street, peered into the saloon, then stopped at the feed store. After a moment, I saw her face get all thoughtful, like. Then she shook her head and headed back to the saloon, no doubt to ask about a room for the night.
       Maybe she was a hooker, traveling alone as she was, but there was something about her that stuck in one's mind. She was cute. Too cute to end up with one of the wife beaters.
       Which was why I found myself looking for her the next day only to hear she'd gone out to Morry's place. I had a horrible idea about what the crazy woman was up to.
       But there she was, working with that blasted horse. And, wonder of wonders, it was responding. She might have been small, but she had that trick of body language that lets some cowboys work with the real crazies without having to rope 'em or put em on the ground.
       She had the knack, and I knew I didn't have to worry about some guy beating her. She'd probably win, delicate as she was. Still, that did the exact opposite of ending my fascination with her. When she left Morry's, she was riding Striker, and I pulled my own spotted mare up next to her.
       "Good work."
       "He just needs consistency."
       I knew she was not entirely wrong, but I also knew that once a horse has got the way Striker had, it takes something special to get them back. But I was also rather glad Morry had got rid of the man could find some beast quiet enough for him. Wouldn't help him with his wives or his cattle.
       Not sure anything could help Morry. "You know how to work horses. If you know how to work cattle as well, you won't have any problems finding work..."
       "Or a husband?" She arched an eyebrow at me.
       "Or that," I agreed.
       "I'm not hunting for either. I have what I want for right now."
       Meaning the horse. No doubt something had happened to her last one, hence why she had been riding the stage. Happened to the best of us. Horses can be surprisingly fragile creatures, or maybe it had just gotten old.
       Who knew. "Is there anything you do need?"
       Her eyes turned hard as coals. "I need a gun."
       "Who are you hunting?"
       "My husband." She narrowed her eyes again, and then with the lightest of touches sent Striker into a lope away from me.
       I watched her go, wondering what her husband had done. Beaten her, probably. So she was going to shoot him. Most around here would turn a blind eye to that. Some guys just needed killing.
       But there was something about her that was so cold, now I had been close to her, and yet, she had that blasted horse doing what she wanted. So, in the end, I dismissed it.
       Three days later, two rough looking men rode into town on a pair of black mares. They were like twins, not just a match in color, but also in size and build. From the same mare, no doubt, or very carefully chosen. They seemed well kept, which was a point in favor for their riders.
       Still, something made me sure that these two were the kind to look for trouble, and maybe to shoot something. We frowned on that in Larry's Gulch. Really, it's only in stories that people fight duels over the slightest thing, but those two had their hands on their guns and their spurs close to their horses' sides the entire time.
       They picketed the mares outside the saloon and went in. I elected not to stay too close. Guys like that are bad enough sober. Drunk, they'll cause more trouble than any town needs. I didn't want to be around when the trouble started.
       I was too late. A moment after they went in the saloon, the woman came out of it. Through the window. Despite that, her egress seemed to be quite deliberate. She ran for Striker and vaulted into the saddle in one smooth motion, pulling up the reins.
       The men came out a moment later, one of them firing in her general direction. He missed, and his companion growled, "Alive, you idiot."
       They vaulted on their suspiciously identical mares and took off after her. I wasn't the type to involve myself in trouble of any kind, but I couldn't stand seeing such a pretty girl being hunted down. I mounted and took off after them, loosening my own guns in their holsters. Not that I wanted a shoot out.
       Striker was doing his best, but the pinto mares were faster. Sparks flew from their hooves, and there was a sense that something was not quite right here. Something that I didn't put my finger on until much, much later.
       When I realized there was no way even a horsewoman such as her was going to get away, I fired on the left hand guy. I know I hit him. I also know he didn't slow down. Not at all. It was like he hadn't even felt it.
       An insult, really, that he didn't turn around to deal with me. The black mares were running in perfect unison. Almost as if it was one rider split into two, not two riders, but I knew that could not be true. I had seen their earlier quarrel. I cursed both of them...they had her between them now.
       Her gun was out, she was firing, but that had no more effect. Then Striker twisted, reared and struck the shoulder of one of them. Sparks flew again, and there was a smell of rotten eggs. Of brimstone. But that blasted horse was determined. He was taking that mare down, even if it was the last thing he did.
       Her teeth closed on his shoulder. I saw blood...and I fired again, not hoping to do anything but cause more of a distraction. The second one came at me, and I swung my horse to the side, not wanting her to face the fangs I now saw in the pinto mare's mouth.
       Damn it! But Striker had the first mare down, his rider thrown to the ground. She was clear, and there were tears in her eyes. She did not want to run.
       "Run!" I yelled at her. But she was frozen. I spurred the spotted mare, grabbed her where she was, and rode. It was instinct that told me, though, to change my course and ride for the little clapboard church.
       I rode the mare right into the dang church, not caring what the preacher might have to say about it. Right in, and then I helped her down. She collapsed in a heap, weeping.
       When I finally left, I found Striker's body...and around him the cloven-hooved prints of the black mares. But they...or he...could not follow us into the church.
       I never saw the woman again, but we buried Striker as if he were a man. I hope she somehow got away, but then, what kind of woman agrees to be the Devil's wife?
       Maybe the kind who thinks she can tame anything. Maybe the kind who can.
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