Pat Deavoll 2013
They come up the hill at a shambling trot, three thin brown men riding thin brown horses.
From the top of the hill a gnarled ridge crabs to the north and an escarpment breaks from this to fall into a valley riddled with ancient stream beds. Behind is an immense plain of tufted brush and shallow gullies and rock outcrops as uncompromising as tombstones. The men turn and look back over the plain, back the way they’ve come. There’s nothing to see and they relax and sit lower in their saddles and one by one take tobacco from their coat pockets and roll cigarettes as slim as twigs for the tobacco is running low. Two of the men are older with creviced faces and eyes like slits and grey stubble mottles their boney cheeks. The third man is a boy in his late teens with straw blond hair and smooth even features beneath a grimy hat. He would be handsome were it not for the down-turn of his mouth and a mistrust in his washed blue eyes. The men sit and watch and smoke and no one talks for there is nothing to say that’s not already in the minds of all three. A slight wind shifts the air, stirs the brush. The shadows of the horses and riders lengthen. Still no one speaks.
A dark thing spots the horizon, curdles in the afternoon heat. It’s there for a second, then it’s gone. One man starts, his eyes crease. His cigarette pauses midair.
“I saw something.”
“Just below the horizon.”
They are all watching now but the dark thing is gone.
They relax, but not the one who thinks he saw something, he keeps looking, his jaw tight and his eyes on the horizon. Then he jerks his arm and points.
“There, it’s there again.”
Now they all see it, the dark thing, below the horizon and part way across the flat. Sometimes it splits in two, only to merge and split again.
The men drop their cigarettes and urge the horses over the edge of the escarpment with quick rough words, down the steep slope of scree and stunted trees. The horses sit low on their haunches and stones and grit roll from under their hooves to fan out below them. A dry stream bed parallels the slope and they pick their way along this heading east, careful lest the horses stumble. They hope their tracks won’t show amongst the smooth black rocks. After a short time they come to a junction in the stream bed and stop and look back towards the top of the escarpment. There’s nothing to see. They choose the left branch and keep on downstream, the horses’ breath coming in quick ragged bursts. The stream switches and loops back tight under the escarpment before dropping into a twisted canyon. The entrance is guarded by the bleached trunks of ancient trees from a better time. Evening approaches, they need to hide and they wonder if the canyon will do.
“Hard for them to ambush us, they can’t saddle this in the dark.”
“Have t’ do.”
They ride down into the canyon and tether the horses amongst the boulders and prepare to wait out the night. The sun sinks and the walls of the canyon turn rose, then deep brown. Darkness comes quickly. The temperature drops and the men huddle in their coats. They don’t dare a fire. Each sinks into his thoughts. The night passes, no one comes.
They leave before dawn, leading the horses for the canyon drops steeply into a jag’d maze of glazed boulders and dead brush. The horses skitter and flatten their ears and snort and the men curse them softly and tug on the reins and cajole the horses to be quiet now, quiet. The canyon cuts deeper into the bedrock and the men know the further they go the more difficult it will be to climb out when the time comes. This worries them. The sun sidles around and suddenly it’s light and the top of the escarpment sharpens against the white gold of the sky. The men look up at the escarpment but see nothing.
Then the small wind draining the last of the night from the canyon brings the sound of distant rock fall. The men look up again and this time a black mass builds on the skyline at the farthest end of the escarpment. It grows bit by bit over the next few minutes.
“They’ve found our tracks.”
“But they can’t see us yet, not in the canyon, we’ve still got some hours on them.”
“Unless they skit round the top and head us off.”
“Maybe we should climb out t’ the south. Before they try it.”
They stand in silence, looking at one another.
“Ok let’s go south,” one man says. He looks at the walls of the canyon and points downstream to a shallow ravine of dried weed and brush and old grey sticks that breaches the orange rock. It’s about 30 feet wide and winds upward to meet the right hand edge of the canyon.
“Maybe we can climb out there.”
“We’ll have to try.”
“But what if we can’t?” says the boy.
The others mount without reply. Half way up the ravine the horses are breathing hard and sweat slicks their sides and the smell of the horses lingers in the close air. Hooves scrape across the rocks and tiny sparks from the shoes catch and die amongst the brush. The men slap the horses’ sides with their hats and hurry them on with curses but the animals have had little rest, little feed for days now and they founder and eventually the men dismount again and lead them, haul them upwards by the reins. By the time they reach the top of the ravine both the men and the horses are done in. They stop to rest and the boy says, “I can’t go no further,” but they know they can’t rest here for long, they can be seen, positioned as they are against the skyline. They must move. One man looks back.
There are horsemen in the stream bed, moving with the tenacity of ants. They negotiate the boulders and brush at a relentless winding trot. The men swear softly and one says, “They’re gaining on us,” and another, “There must be over a dozen of them.” They spur their flagging horses into a crazed canter across river terraces that rise in scalloped layers towards the mountains of the south.
An hour passes before the men rein the horses. They are hard under the brace of foothills fringing the southern range and the horses stumble in their need for water and rest. The sun hangs heavily in the midday sky and the brush and boulders cast small dirty shadows. The men look back across the country they’ve ridden but see no one following. They roll cigarettes and smoke quickly as they confer.
“They know where we are, just a matter of time,” one of the older men says. “We can try t’ loose them in the hills.”
“That’s if the horses can climb,” says the other, looking up at the spines and outcrops and jagged ridges of the foot hills.
“That or skit the edge, try ‘n outrun them.”
“The horses are done, we’ll never outrun them, better we hide.”
The boy says nothing. There’s exhaustion in the set of his shoulders, despair in the dullness of his eyes.
The others shift in their saddles.
“There they are.”
The posse is converging at the top of the canyon. It hovers as a mass, sways, then one by one the horsemen peel away and start across the bottom terrace. The sun splashes off the metal barrels of the rifles and they can see the silhouettes of the rifles like pickets slung above the riders’ shoulders.
“We gotta’ go up,” one man says and they turn the horses and start up a brittle ridge running back towards to the long summit massif of the foot hills. The ridge is steep and paved loosely in shale and stunted cacti and the horses begin to stumble and baulk, then fall on their knees and foam at the mouth and the men are out of the saddle and leading the horses again. They cuss and haul on the reins and break pieces of brush and beat the horses. The boy drops behind, he is on his hands and knees in the shale. Below, the posse has reached the final terrace and comes on at a controlled and systematic gallop.
The sun slants in on a golden angle as the men reach the ridgeline. The main range of mountains opens out above them. The summits shine against a sky as vast and free as an ocean. The peaks and shaded cwms are wrapped in glistening white. Streams pour helter-skelter over rocks, bust through small ravines, tumble into pools of silver. The lower slopes are blanketed in a forest of emerald. A subtle wind shimmies off the mountains bringing with it the fragrance of snow and pine. It moves lightly across the men, cools their faces and shifts the horses’ manes. The men mount the horses for the last time and rein them close as they pass the remains of the tobacco. They light their cigarettes and draw deeply. There’s no hurry now. They wait.
Soon they make out the blue uniforms and peaked caps and rifles of the posse. There are twenty horsemen and they’re at the base of the foothills now, beginning to climb the ridge. They hear the hoof-beat, the clink of stirrups and the rasped breath of the horses as they scramble the rocks and scree. They hear the voices of the men cussing the horses and the barked commands of the officer at the head.
Now they see the faces of the horsemen and the eyes, and the brass buttons and red braid and insignia on the uniforms. They see the silver spurs on the dusty boots and the tooled detail on the saddles and they smell the leather of the saddles and the sweat of the horses and the men.
Still they wait.
At one hundred paces, the horsemen stop. A command cracks the air. Twenty rifles rise as one, cock… and level.
And still the three men wait.