So, folks, this is partly what I’ve been doing with my time. On April 3rd, 2017, I was involved in a car wreck that destroyed my truck and left me with a bad concussion and a bit of PTSD. Since then, I’ve found myself more sensitive to sleep deprivation, prone to anxiety attacks and quick to lose my temper and start throwing shit like a chimp.
So rather than get myself charged with assault or murder, I’ve thrown myself back into horses; trimming and shoeing, breaking and training, and just in general doing again what everyone tells me I was born to do. And making that connection with a green horse, turning a wild-eyed, trembling little creature into a trusting and confident companion….. just being in the saddle again…. it’s all like a meditation for me. It’s what I’m good at. That, and this.
This story sprouted from an anxiety attack I had while waiting for a freight train to pass, which quickly painted itself into a short scene with a girl and a horse. Then, it got bigger.
It’s written in the first person because I originally intended it to submit it to the NoSleep subreddit, but it has since grown into something much longer (too long for NoSleep, unless it’s a serial) and will become a novella for the anthology. It may change perspective by then… who knows? But for now at least, here’s the first scene.
The Horseman, part one: The Train.
My father always said there were two kinds of people in the world; those who ran from their death, and those who rode out to meet it.
He never paid much mind to which camp I was in, so long as I kept the livestock fenced, put the right ones in the freezer or up to market in the fall, and never talked back. I don’t ever remember a time when my ma was around. As soon as we were old enough, my brothers and I all fled the farm and the endless chores and our father’s fists and found work doing what we knew how.
I trucked around the oilfields, ran hotshot, cleaned casings, hauled line heaters and small freight north up to Fort Mac and Firebag. Great work if you wanna see the country and don’t need to sleep. Damn good pay, too.
But sometimes, the well runs dry.
When the economy hiccupped again and all the drilling rigs pulled out of Central Alberta, I wasn’t gonna sit on my hands and wait for a squirt from the government tit, so I went back to shoeing horses.
In the end, I guess, we’re all gonna die. I just never had it in me to sit still long and wait for it.
I was heading up Two Lakes road to the T6 ranch the day everything quit on me. They worked crazy-ass bison with Appies – for some ungodly reason – I guess Appaloosas are the only thing crazy and spiteful enough to reliably cut and chase something that enjoys stomping the shit out of wolves and bears. There’s more than a few horses and men got their oil checked by a buffalo.
But they were regular paying clients on my calendar and I visited at least once a month for resets, replaced any shoes that might’ve got thrown or lost in the muck, and sometimes, hell, I even floated teeth.
I am a man of many talents.
The sky was itching to rain that morning so I had my tools and stand in the back seat of the crew cab and three quarters of a bag of medicated chick starter up in the front passenger footwell, cause I’d been too busy to throw it in the feed bin two weeks before and, well, at least it stayed dry and the dogs wouldn’t get into it. Just about a handful would kill a horse and less would lay a dog low, but it kept the chicks upright and peeping and you wouldn’t lose more than one or two to the hundred.
I hadn’t seen an ounce of life since I’d pulled up off the gravel bush road I lived on so I spooled the Ford up to 95, right to where the turbo starts to whine, and hit the cruise. It had been one more red-eyed morning chasing another long night, working past sundown at 11, finishing the roof on the new place before I lost the dry weather and rushing through that whole build in a month.
Bucking logs and peeling bark, cutting saddle notches with a chainsaw, hoisting twenty-four log trusses with a block and tackle, and cussing my own bullheaded idea to build my own place on my own dirt, way out back of beyond.
A twelve by twenty foot log cabin, all mine, sweat, blood, and slivers, and it had beat me like a redheaded stepchild. Getting back to shoeing would be a vacation so I just sat back on autopilot and enjoyed the diesel purr and the hum of the tires and the granite river of sky flowing overhead between the tips of spruce.
There’d been a Charlie Daniels CD stuck on continuous loop since I bought the truck and it provided a sound track and an egg timer for nearly every trip into town. Five or six songs down the road and there’d be the sign, sure enough, “When nothing’s going right, go left. T6 Ranch, next turn. Bison burgers and steaks for sale. ”
Not a sign of life on that whole damn road and suddenly there’s two white SUVs racing up my ass. Didn’t even touch the brakes, just went wide around me on a solid line before the bend at the eagle’s nest and kept moving like they were late for a funeral.
Sure enough, by the time I rounded that bend, there they were, same pair of SUVs, braking hard and mean, noses slamming down, puffs of blue smoke and skid marks out the back, stopping just in time to miss the train as the twin orange diesel engines roared through the unsignaled crossing.
Trains out here are more than a mile long. Oil tankers and shipping containers stacked two high. A weaving snake of mobile pipeline, bloated on crude and headed up through the mountains to the pacific, with room for Chinese sneakers and flatscreens and Walmart whatnot to come home.
And twisting around the foothills, between lakes and through little canyons, they’re limited to a relative crawl. So I pulled up behind the car and SUV, put the truck into park and watched another F350 pull up behind me, seen the driver throw his hands up in the rear view, toss his hat up on the dash and put his seat back for a nap.
Hurry up and wait.
That area was so far out away from anything and surrounded by hills and rocks, you couldn’t catch a cell signal if you climbed a tree and the best radio station to be had was some scratchy AM bible thumper telling you how near the end surely was and ARE YOU SAVED, BROTHAH?
No, goddamnit, and anyone in my family ever set foot in holy water, it’d probably burst into flame.
So I turned up Mr Daniels and found some solace in the fact that this particular train looked to be in a bit of a hurry.
We all couldn’t have been there more than a minute or so when a flash of white in the mirror caught my eye and here came this blonde chick on a paint, riding right up past the trucks and SUVs and putting her horse straight up to the edge of the train like most folks would think was suicide. It was moving a fairly good clip by then, weird for a freight train in the hills but she pushed up closer to it anyhow, getting the horse used to the rush and rumble.
They feel it in their hooves, like a thousand horse stampede, and most are inclined to get a little antsy, but it’s a good step on the road to a bombproof horse.
She touched her heels to the mare, urged her softly the last few steps and despite the roar, the storm of iron, the barrelling rush of oil tankers and sea cans, the four-beat lope of wheels on flexing rail, the mare didn’t balk. She took the steps cautious, but willing.
The girl was a few years younger than me, 22 or 23, butter blonde ponytail out the back of a Justin cap, dirty jeans she filled out and threatened to pour a little over, a red shirt, sleeves rolled up and arms and neck burnt brown.
She looked back at the cars and she looked a little confused but she knew her horses. I’d seen her before, working the dust off a snotty, thick-legged, barrel bodied colt that none of the Dunmeier boys had the balls to climb up on.
The colt – late born and left to pasture, had turned too wild to be caught and was left out with his mother – some short necked, feather-legged, near mustang that had wandered in off the Sun Child rez. The duo thrived out on the fringe, digging grass under the snow for 4 winters before the mare was found in the melt one spring, killed by a lion, finished by ravens.
The stud colt joined the main herd and came in close enough to be penned, and by then nobody knew what to do with him. He couldn’t be handled, nobody could get close to him, and the cocky boys who tried got kicked in the chest, run over, or bit in the ass hurling themselves over the rail.
I was shoeing a couple mules when I saw the girl come out – this ranch kid in a rusty old flatbed Ford and trailer, busted leaf spring and loose running boards clanging an Alberta opera – come to deliver square bales. She hopped outta the cab before the wheels quit rolling, and marched over to that round pen on a mission.
Marched right over and pulled two of them boys clean off the top rail and sent them ass over tea kettle, cussing mouthfuls of dirt, and before they seen what had dropped them, she was over the rail and in the pen with that coming-on-five year old stallion.
And nobody said a word. Not the boys, not the hands, not the Filipino holding the mule for me. We all just froze and watched like she’d gone skinny dipping with sharks.
The stud, his own self, looked surprised for two seconds, just that, like he was shocked anybody could be so stupid. ‘Didn’t you see what I just did, child? Didn’t anyone tell you about me? I’m the fucking devil and now you’re gonna die.’ And he pinned his ears, bared his teeth, rose to full height and lunged for her.
And she ran. Full out. Straight at him; met him halfway across the round pen, punched him in the nose and by then the stud had had quite enough of that shit and was backpedaling, turning on his haunches, trying to avoid this fucking lunatic they’d thrown in there to eat him and she started chasing him around the pen.
In seconds, she was free-lunging him, had him running scared, wild-eyed and snorting steam, working up a lather. I got back to nailing on the shoe at hand, but kept watch and after twenty minutes, she had the horse haltered and turning into her, loping, trotting, walking, and finally calm and tired and following along on a lead.
Like a goddamn puppy dog.
By the time I had finished resetting both mules, she’d been laying all over that wild stud, rubbing and scratching him, got a saddle on, cinched it up, sent him around for a few bucks, and when no one volunteered to take the first ride, she footed the stirrup, laid across his back a few times, and finally swung on.
It seemed a bit early for that sort of thing, and he didn’t take to her being up there, not by any means. He was up and bucking, head down and stiff-legged, springing high up on all fours like a rodeo bronc. And above his snorting and muffled screaming, came her laughing. Great whoops and guffaws, cackling maniacally like she was having the time of her life, while meeker boys on the rail shook their heads and exchanged lame excuses.
“Bitch is fuckin’ crazy…”
She let him get his bucks out, pet him and cheered him, and put her heels to him with care until he was moving off her leg, walking tentatively in circles and changing direction in just a halter. Then she hopped off and untacked, gave him a kiss and that was it. Two hours to green broke.
By then the boys had all wandered off somewhere they wouldn’t be reminded that a chunky little blonde girl had bigger balls and could sit a bronc better than all of them combined.
So I followed her up to the coverall and gave her a hand unloading the squares and we just talked. She was coming on 18 then, a few years younger than me and I tried not to notice the way she filled out those jeans, torn at the knee and frayed at her boot heel. She had a nice smile and a kind of a shy, quiet sense about her, and the boyish, calloused hands that girls get when they grow up handling more barbed wire than Barbies.
We chucked squares and sweated and made each other laugh about people and horses and when we parted company I knew I’d see her again, on down the road somewhere.
‘Devil Went Down To Georgia’ came on, rising above the idle of the truck.
And now, here she was, at a rail crossing in the middle of Fuckall-Nowhere in the foothills, nudging a paint mare up close to a bullet-fast freight train with the kind of calm willingness I fully expected from a horse in her hands.
Charlie Daniels, scratching away on his fiddle at high speed…..
The mare stretched her head out closer to the train, no fear, just cautious curiosity, two eyes and forward, easygoing ears. I could see the girl’s ears move a little too as she smiled, watching the mare, and that made me smile.
“Now you play a pretty good fiddle, boy, but give the devil his due…”
And with the suddenness off a blowout, the mare recoiled, swung her head right, one eye wide and nostrils flared, snorting and stamping a hoof. She was staring at something coming on that train, her ribs heaving, legs stiff, muscles starting to sharpen and flex. I couldn’t see what she was looking at and I craned my head but the rock walls surrounding the rail line were too narrow and mine was a bad angle.
But she was seeing something, and when I turned back, I saw that the girl seen it too and her mouth was open and face froze white. And then she wheeled the mare and put the spurs to her, screaming at me and the other cars as she tore on by us. Something terrified and wide-mouthed, frantic, cursing, but lost in the thunder of engines.
“Fire on the mountain! Run, boys, run! Devil’s in the house of the rising sun…”
And like that, she was gone. Just a dot galloping away in my mirror.
The lady ahead of me began frantically trying to turn her SUV, flailing a feverish hand out the window, slamming back and forth where she was wedged. I leaned forward again, hard up and over the steering wheel and looked out the side of my windshield, down the rock walled canyon and I saw then what I had missed before…
The great black reaper, hurtling on toward us, bringing death to collect a debt. My mind fought to rationalize what I saw and in the critical moments, as others panicked and rushed, slamming into each other in a tangled mess of ruined bumpers and spinning tires, I watched the iron giant churn a swath of flame down the alley toward us.
A towering, derailed oil tanker, cart wheeling end over end, ruptured at the seams and spraying curtains of billowing flame. When it came to me fully what was happening, when the pause button released and my hands started moving, I slammed the truck in reverse and made it a foot before adding to the carnage behind me.
The lady in the SUV saw her chance then and took it, reversed, spun her car wide and turned sidelong, penning me in and blowing out her side airbag, and she was just pushing it into gear again when she turned and I saw her face and her children’s faces and her husband’s face and we, all of us, knew then that we were out of time.
A giant barbell – the enormous axle and wheels of some train car, busted off and blown skyward – landed in front of her, half buried instantly in the tarmac as if dropped into thick mud; the other half destroying the front of her car. And before anyone could react, they were gone.
Gone. Both SUVs vanished instantly in a wall of darkness as if cut from reality by a blade and showing the raw space beyond. And I had half a breath left in me and no words and not a moment to think when it took me, too, and the sun burned out.
The clock stopped. Time stopped. The engines and the CD and the rattle of the idling diesel, gone; and in that moment, the only moment, the only sound was screaming, failing iron; exploding glass; and the shudder of every ounce of the universe as I was slammed around inside the cab; deflated, torn air bags flailing; the world turning and all light reduced to a yellow stain through the haze of chick starter, spilled and swirling as if caught in the gravity of a dying star.
My arms and legs were bundles of steel rods; my neck, my stomach gripped in a fist; every muscle strained by emergency power. And still, I was thrashed about like a rag; battered by tools, broken glass and the roof crushed flat where my head had been.
It was an instant and it was forever and when it finally came to rest… when the truck had stopped rolling but I continued to, I was pinned upside down by the jammed seatbelt, stuck between my crushed seatback and the imploded roof and without thought or reason or worry over what might be broken, I had my pocket knife out and had sliced through the belt and was clawing, kicking, stabbing the burning ground and dragging myself from the ruins of the Ford.
When I stood, I turned, stiff and shaking, choking on the stink of airbag smoke and burning chick starter and found what remained of my truck, cut in half and wedged under what looked like a piece of a tank; a sheared-off strip of steel tread wedged and hanging from a mess of wheels.
My eyes were locked in my head and the world jolted and spun with each step and turn as I surveyed the battlefield of wreckage. Greasy black flames poured off ruined chunks of melt-metal corpses strewn around me and explosions, not far off, sent peristaltic shockwaves through the air, through the ground, and through me.
The sky was blanketed by low smoke, bent to a shadowy darkness, and breached only by comets of burning wreckage raining down around me.
Somewhere, someone was bawling – a hoarse, flat, moaning, more goat than human.
I staggered through the debris and flames, toward the noise, dizzied, swearing, and disoriented amidst the ongoing screeching and creaking, the explosions that rattled bone and mind. One of the SUVs, smashed nearly flat, a woman pinned, crushed inside, but somehow alive, groped a crimson arm around, reaching for help.
I cut away the hanging airbag and grasped the hand and it came alive, gripping with adrenaline strength, pulling on me and sobbing words I could barely catch. I tried to talk to her, to comfort her. I was there to help her and now she’d be alright.
She kept crying, “My baby! My baby!” and I told her, “Ma’am, don’t worry. Your baby’s just fine. Just fine. Just fine.”
But one look in the blood-spackled crevice of the crushed rear compartment, bits of plastic, hair, and torn flesh…
It was just to calm her down and I turned to get her attention, to keep her from looking in the back, to focus her on me and my face, my eyes, look at me, I’m gonna get you out, just hold on, I’ll get this door and we’ll get you and your baby and everybody out…
…..her face was half gone; her scalp torn and hanging over one eye, the other a swelled-shut 8 ball of blackened, bone-bitten meat. She couldn’t have seen anything and it was a wonder she could speak at all through the shattered jaw, devoid of teeth and drooling blood. Her other arm was done, smashed and twisted and spiked with bone and metal.
“You’re gonna be alright ma’am!”
But she was not alright. And then she wasn’t even there. She was just gone and I was on my ass in the dirt, staring up at the haze, reeling, head spinning.
What the fuck?
The sardine can car, the half-scalped lady, the bits of baby and whoever else; just swatted away with a sound like cannon fire; taken by some fiery claw from the dark, trailing ribbons of spark and slag, vanishing into a wall of smoke, and leaving a running crater. No other sound beyond the bomb blasts, the bellow of wildfire, and the constant shriek of twisting and tearing steel.
The light-headedness overcame me and I stayed down in the dirt, chest heaving like a bellows, trying to catch my breath when I felt the pulsing grip of a hand on mine and looking down, realized I was still holding the woman’s severed arm.
“Ah. Fuck.” and sent it spinning off into the choking haze while I tried to spit out the burnt chemical shit from the airbags that was everywhere.
A tremulous clang and thud, the earth shuddering beneath me, severe and urgent, and I leapt from the spot where I’d fallen as a tumbling 40 foot shipping container bowled over it.
My legs moved on their own; kept moving, charging, hurdling low flames and dodging falling chunks of debris. Another train axle screamed in from outer space, blowing out the ground three feet from me like a mortar; stones and hot earth hit like buckshot, but were lost in the surging adrenaline.
In the thickening haze I nearly ran into a smouldering house-sized snarl of twisted metal and ribbing; a nest of ruined girders and, skirting it, I slowed for a moment when I saw a shape emerge from the angry haze ahead of me.
She was barely school age, barefoot in the burning grass with only a little white dress, holding up one hand flat toward me.
I stopped, slapped by the suddenness of this tiny pale waif from out the darkness.
Her eyes turned up from mine, tilting her head until I followed her gaze and though unable to clearly see it, I sensed above us the looming presence of some dangling noose; a rattler, coiled to strike down.
When I looked back down, she was gone – whether a figment of shock and low light or flesh and blood which had fled, in her place was a torn up wall of steel, wrecked and gushing founts of fluid and flame, tearing wider under its own crushing weight.
Above it, as my eyes drew upward once more, its true shape revealed itself as it tilted rapidly downward; a half-crumpled tanker car, balanced on end but coming apart just as fast as it was coming down.
Faster. Faster now.
Before it reached the ground, the tanker unzipped like a torn sausage casing, dropping a load of diesel in a sudden deluge that kept at my heels as I fled through a wall of acrid smoke.
The burning wreckage and oil nearby were already hot enough to ignite it and the whole world lit up in a growling rush that boiled the surrounding smoke and sent flames racing to the tops of what must have been trees that towered nearby.
With the churning haze stinging my eyes, I could barely keep them open long enough to see and I stumbled blind through the flickering darkness, frantic to keep ahead of the hell behind me. And then the thick murk closed in again, and I could feel the heat, not just behind me now, but in front and all around, melting my clothes and searing my skin, and I realized there was no way out, that I was penned in by fire and darkness, surrounded, and the burning shit in my lungs left me coughing, hacking, and forcing out more air than I could draw.
I went down like the tanker. Hit the ground on all fours and could barely manage that before my face was in the dirt and the fire was upon me. It was over then, and I knew it. I was almost glad.
But there, beneath the thickest of it all, low to the ground was a crawl space of air, filthy and thick but manageable, where the little girl crouched, watching me. As I wheezed and drew just enough life back in to keep my eyes open, she stood up, still bent over, and moved off through the haze, waving me in behind her.
It was all I could do to crawl; drag myself across hot ground and fallen cinders, keeping beneath the low ceiling of firelit smog. Ahead of me, I kept losing sight of her and could never see more than a faint outline of her dress or the ash black soles of her tiny feet. Finally, I took hold of grass – unburnt grass – and handful after handful, pulling myself up the bank, finally emerged out on to the road where the smoke was not nearly so bad.
The fire was there – it was everywhere – licking up the trees and throwing sparks and cinders high into the sky on turbulent winds of its own design. It had come in on a tide of oil that carpeted everything and now the flames spread with unbelievable speed, like a gushing tidal wave pouring over the land.
We hadn’t had a drop of rain in well over two months. The bush, the grassland, everything for miles would go up like it begged to burn. And my house would go with it. I was just in the path.
When is it enough just to walk away with your life? To be grateful just to stand on burning ground and know that everything you’ve ever worked for suddenly amounts to nothing?
My truck. My home. My tools. Everything I had in this world was gone or would be shortly. Nothing to do for it. And for some reason it felt like déjà vu. Standing there in a scorched shirt and tore up jeans, bubbling tarmac melting the soles off my work boots, and fire closing in all around. It felt like it had always been like this; like it was the only way it could have ever turned out.
All I could do is turn and turn, looking and yelling for that little girl. Not even sure she’d been real.
Another explosion; a screaming fireball the size of a semi came barrelling out onto the road with a splash of flaming oil and the thick sound of finality; a moment’s hesitation in relative silence…
Then it cried and tore itself apart in a tantrum, rending its sides and flinging hot metal shards in every direction. Half of a fan, wrecked and missing blades like shattered teeth, spun out above my head and crashed into the bush. And I was running again.
I limped down the road in a broken gait, wheezing and feeling like I was about to drop again, but pushed on hard by the flames leaping across tree tops and nearly keeping pace.
When I hit my last steps, felt the burning in my lungs give way to choking up blood and knew in my bones, knew with absolute certainty that I couldn’t make it any further, a hand caught the back of my shirt, nearly tore it off trying to hoist me, and the broken beat of my own boots was overtaken by the drumming of hooves from behind.
She didn’t stop, just kept pace at a trot beside me, screaming at me to take hold, her voice lost this time in the thrum of blood pulsing in my ears and the explosions and roaring fire…
But my hand found hers; the other latched on to the saddle, and leaping, windmilling legs caught purchase on her boot in the stirrup. I tumbled up and threw myself in behind her.
My head finally gave out and went black as I felt the mare pick up a balls-out gallop and we were gone.